Monday, July 21, 2014

Life Itself (dir. Steve James, USA, 2014)

Roger Ebert (1942-2013) exemplified the best traits of a film critic, a populist communicator unafraid to introduce his audience to adventurous material.  How I would’ve loved to sit in on one of his 5 hour frame-by-frame analyses of such classics as The Third Man.  As a freethinker I find much to admire in his meditations upon religious belief and the afterlife, and I wholeheartedly agree with his position that movies at their finest are “empathy-generating machines.”

So, why am I so lukewarm about Life Itself, the documentary by Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) on Ebert’s life?  I guess it’s largely because Life plays it safe:  we see the photos of Roger as a boy, the video of Roger’s memorial service, the standard shots of Chicago, and yes, a look at Ebert’s star on the Walk of Fame.  For anyone who has read Ebert’s autobiography (I highly recommend the personably-narrated audio version), practically the only new material here is the documentation of Ebert’s final months, during which Roger and his wonderful wife Chaz allowed James considerable access to their lives.

If you’d rather not read or listen to Ebert’s autobiography, then I do recommend this film to you.  James hits all the high points:  Ebert’s childhood journalistic efforts, his promotion to film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, his struggles with alcoholism, the Siskel and Ebert television programs, his luck at finding abiding love late in life, and his cancer diagnosis and bravery in allowing Esquire magazine to print the memorable photo of his cancer-altered visage.

Please don’t get me wrong, there is much to enjoy in James’ film.  The morphing of his relationship with Gene Siskel, from indifference to childish sniping to friendship, is covered touchingly and effectively by a series of hilarious television outtakes.  Affecting, too, are the tributes by the likes of Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, recounting Ebert’s championing of their once-obscure work and his encouragement at moments of deep personal crisis.  Again, I only wish that James depicted a life so effervescent with the creative verve it deserves.

(Life Itself is rated R for its language and brief nudity, thus laughably lumping it with the masterworks Porky’s and American Pie.  I would be comfortable letting any teen interested in film criticism watch this film.)

3 out of 5 stars

Particle Fever (dir. Mark Levinson, USA, 2013)

Who would’ve thought a film about subatomic physics could be so exuberant, inspiring, and virtuous?  I was definitely not expecting to love Particle Fever, as I shudderingly recollect my exhausting struggles with college physics.  But sure enough, this is easily the best new documentary I’ve seen so far in 2014.

Particle Fever succeeds as a tale of suspense on two levels.  First of all, it tells the story of the efforts to prove the existence of Higgs boson particle.  Those of us who followed the news in 2012 know how this saga ended, but even so, Mark Levinson’s direction and storytelling swept me up in the events unfolding at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the French-Swiss border.

Levinson wisely chose to follow six theoretical and experimental physicists who were heavily invested in this endeavor’s outcome, so we the viewers watch the narrative unfold through their eyes.  Happily, each of these men and women are superb educators.  Courtesy of these physicists and some crafty graphic work, I now comprehend what was at stake in Geneva from 2007-2012 (and this from someone who gave up on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing).

To summarize, the Higgs boson particle was the missing and central piece in the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  The Higgs boson was theorized to give all particles mass and hold all matter together, allowing it to form atoms.  Without it, the Standard Model would make no sense.  The Large Hadron Collider (large indeed, the hugest structure ever made by humans) at CERN would attempt to smash protons together at nearly light speed, allowing supremely sensitive cameras to image the subatomic particles emerging from the collision, including, hopefully, the Higgs boson.

The second item of suspense in Particle Fever relates to the mass of the Higgs boson.  This may not seem like a big deal, but the scientific stakes were quite high.  A lighter boson would steer physicists towards a fine-tuned, elegant universe of Supersymmetry; a heavier particle would indicate a chaotic, highly unstable multiverse. 

In case all of this sounds dry and tedious, the scientists are delightful to see at work and play.  CERN physicists rap goofily, yet with decently rhyming metrics and smart lyrics; and clichéd as it may be, it’s still pretty funny to watch geniuses of esoteric theory struggle to get audio on their laptops.  More importantly, the joy of discovery is contagious, and I found myself vicariously caught up in their triumphs and setbacks.

The scientists’ life stories sometimes overflow with drama, too.  As children, two of the theoretical physicists escaped war and persecution by fleeing Iran and Turkey with their parents.  Such experiences contrast with the peaceful cooperation of the CERN scientists, numbering 10,000 and hailing from over 100 nations.

I mentioned in my introduction that Particle Fever is a deeply virtuous film.  This multinational collaboration by great scientific minds (even when their respective governments clash) offers hope, when daily headlines tempt thoughtful people to despair.

The twin virtues of patience and perseverance are abundantly on display, too.  Construction on the Large Hadron Collider began in the mid-1980’s, and some of the theoretical physicists we meet have waited 30-40 years to see if their life work is borne out by the experimental data.  The Turkish-born scientist, Savas Dimopoulos, eloquently contrasts the scientific process to making good coffee, which only takes a few minutes to make and can be quickly discarded if the brew tastes mediocre.  No such luck for these heroically forbearing figures.

Invigorating, too, is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  At one point, David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist from Johns Hopkins, is quizzed by an economist about the potential gain from these experiments.  Kaplan unflappably responds, “I have no idea…It could be good for nothing, except for understanding everything.”  (Did I mention these chaps are highly quotable, too?)

I suspect that 20 years from now, this film will be considered a valuable historical document for its portrayal of pivotal scientific events.  What a treat that such a film also invigorates viewers with understanding and hope.

(Particle Fever was not rated by the MPAA.  The film contains occasional salty language, but I would urge its viewing by all scientifically-inclined teens and all open-minded adults.)

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Double Feature: Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, USA, 2013) and Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog, USA, 2005)

Contemplating the rights of animals was a lot simpler when I took Genesis literally, believing the earth and its creatures were ours to have dominion over and use as we see fit until Jesus returned.  Looking back on 30-some years of regular church attendance, I cannot recall a single sermon or Sunday school class nudging me to think more deeply on this important topic.  Now, as an atheist who reads science books for fun, I get to grapple with the reality that all vertebrate brains (humans included) have the same basic anatomical layout, differing only in the relative simplicity or complexity of various structures.  Just as challenging is the growing scientific consensus that mammals, birds, and even (believe it or not) octopuses and cuttlefish possess consciousness.  In striving to act on this hard data rather than an arrogant faith in humanity’s unique status as God’s image-bearers, how should we relate to our fellow creatures?

This question is key to both Blackfish and Grizzly Man.  Both films tragically revolve around the deaths of people who considered themselves friends to the species responsible for their demise.  Each film, however, approaches this question and their respective stories quite differently.

Blackfish chooses a more straightforward route of journalistic advocacy, to focus on the plight of orcas held captive by SeaWorld and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at their Orlando facility.  Although only the second directorial effort by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Blackfish quite capably melds interviews, news footage, graphics, and recordings of SeaWorld shows to move the narrative tautly forward.  I do agree with my friend Ken Morefield that at times this movie feels as if it could become a snuff film, especially with its ambiguous opening imagery (are those orcas doing their show or attacking a trainer?) overlaid with the 911 phone call proclaiming Brancheau’s death.  Fortunately, the rest of the film is much cleaner in its storytelling:  while some of the imagery is horrifying, it feels necessary for our understanding, not gratuitous.

Through the course of Blackfish, we learn a good deal about orca biology and behavior.  Most interesting to me as a psychiatrist, MRI imaging has revealed that the orca limbic system (a brain region involved in emotion and memory) contains a structure that our brain lacks.  This paralimbic cleft very likely plays a role in the orca’s sense of self and the complex social bonds formed within their pods.  This knowledge makes all the more tragic SeaWorld’s longstanding practice of separating mothers from their young, many of whom would naturally stay with their parent for life.

If SeaWorld sounds like the villain of this tale, here are some of their deceits alleged in Blackfish to justify this label:

- Contrary to promotional videos claiming their employees receive years of training, the trainers interviewed for Blackfish recount entering animal enclosures from Day One of their employment.
- Tilikum, the orca that killed Blancheau in Florida, was likely the key player in the death of a trainer at a Canadian aquarium in 1991.  Additionally, his lunging behavior was noted in his SeaWorld profile.  Yet, in a courtroom trial, SeaWorld’s head trainer denied any history of aggression on Tilikum’s part prior to Blancheau’s death.
- SeaWorld guides routinely spout falsehoods to tourists, perhaps most egregiously and self-servingly stating that the normal lifespan for orcas is 25-35 years, which is prolonged by their veterinary treatment in captivity.  In actuality, orca lifespans in the wild are comparable to those of humans.
- Disgracefully, SeaWorld officials played the “blame the victim” game after Ms. Blancheau’s death, yet she was only engaged in standard SeaWorld operating procedure when Tilikum killed her.

In Grizzly Man, by contrast, the primary fictions are of the self-deceiving sort.  This movie’s central figure is Timothy Treadwell, mauled and eaten by a grizzly bear after spending 13 summers among this species on the Alaskan Peninsula.  Treadwell, in founding the organization “Grizzly People,” contended that he was advocating for the bears he lived among and adored.  However, a bear biologist interviewed for the film unequivocally states that the Alaskan grizzly population is quite healthy, safe from poaching, and numbers around 35,000 as it lives on National Park Service land.   

Though a college dropout and failed actor, Treadwell was a superb cinematographer, and Grizzly Man director Werner Herzog adroitly sifted through over 100 hours of Treadwell’s video footage to share magnificent images of bears fighting, fishing, and strolling across gorgeous landscapes.  As Herzog’s narration  informs us, Treadwell’s camera also turned inward and became a sort of confessional.  Treadwell tells the camera that he is clumsy in the human world and was nothing until he began to live among the bears.  Darkly, he also reveals a grandiose and paranoid streak in his monologues, expressing a belief that he alone has the ability to save the bears and voicing a delusional mistrust of everyone else who enters the bears’ territory.

Over his 50+ year career as a director, Herzog has excelled in introducing viewers to people striving to break through the constraints of their humanity, whether in trying to subjugate the jungle (Fitzcarraldo; Aguirre: The Wrath of God), escape Southeast Asia POW camps (Little Dieter Needs to Fly; Rescue Dawn), push the limits of flight (White Diamond), or live and do research in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World).  And in Grizzly Man, Herzog has found another worthy subject for his ruminations.  Where Blackfish advocates, Grizzly Man meditates.

Truth be told, a current of self-deception runs through Blackfish, too, although of a different strain.  Nearly all of the former orca trainers interviewed for Blackfish experienced a creeping realization that they were partaking in a cruel enterprise, and their consciences no longer permitted them to recite corporate misinformation.  Four of these trainers commendably have gone on to found Voice of the Orcas, a clearinghouse for articles and videos about orca conservation and activism.

One of the Blackfish trainers urges that captive orcas ought to be released into the wild wherever possible or at a minimum placed into large open ocean pens.  After reading Laurel Braitman’s scientifically savvy and well-documented book Animal Madness, I’m starting to believe that the orca trainer’s reasoning should be applied to zoo animals, too, for at least three interlocking reasons.  First, we lack compelling data that zoo visits increase human empathy for other animals (and intuitively, why would we expect differently, when these animals are objectified and enclosed solely for the edu-tainment of Homo sapiens?).  Second, the high prevalence of captivity-induced mental illness - often necessitating treatment with antidepressants, antipsychotics, and/or anti-anxiety medications - unequivocally demonstrates that caged animals are not content animals.  Third, to end where we began, contemporary neuroscience increasingly reveals that our fellow vertebrates are sentient beings, capable of forming strong attachments within their tribe and feeling their forced separations quite intensely.

We desperately need to achieve balance here.  The life and death of Treadwell reveal the dangerous delusion of projecting our own psychological needs and overidentifying with wild creatures, while Blackfish persuasively demonstrates the cruelty of penning animals who would normally enjoy a habitat measuring dozens of miles into tiny enclosures, while using them to turn a profit and entertain.

(Both of these films contain material suitable for consideration by teens, though I think their violence would very likely be too distressing for younger viewers.)

Grizzly Man5 out of 5 stars
Blackfish4 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (USA, 2014, dir. Matt Reeves)

What a relief – a summer blockbuster with substance has finally arrived!  After the dopey Spiderman and forgettable X-Men installments, I was beginning to doubt that we’d see such a thing in 2014.  Happily, Dawn is superior in every way to its predecessor and leaves me curious to see where Matt Reeves will take us in his next Apes film, slated for release in 2016.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens cleverly, with credits unfurling over a globe upon which are superimposed brisk audiovisuals of the events concluding the last film, which just as quickly transition through the spread of the Simian Flu virus that has nearly wiped out humanity.  The main action begins 10 years after the last film ended, with a human/ape encounter that shocks both parties.  The apes are contentedly living in the woods of Northern California under the peaceful leadership of Caesar, while a small group of surviving humans have ventured outside San Francisco in an effort to jumpstart a hydroelectric plant to power their city.

Both the human and ape groups contain a plausible mixture of those who want to co-exist peacefully and those who crave a reason to begin spilling the blood of the other species.  I don’t care to give away more of the plot, preferring instead to point out that the story ably provides space for contemplating the relative values of maintaining divisive tribalism versus creating a community of virtuous beings no matter their origins.  In telling its story, Dawn alludes to the “fictitious” warmongering of Bush/Cheney, the Twin Towers, and suicide bombers, but amazingly manages to do this without coming across as heavy-handed.

To its credit as well, Dawn depicts violent acts but only rarely (once, by my count) glorifies them.  While some will no doubt see this film primarily for the cool factor of watching chimps ride horses and wield machine guns, the violence of Dawn is genuinely tragic, motivated by fear and ignorance.  As the onscreen story unfolded, I found myself pondering the real-life question of whether we humans will succeed in destroying ourselves, or whether (a la Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature) we can eschew self-extinction.

All of this is not to say that Dawn is flawless.  Some plot turns are quite genre-predictable, and in particular, the final act pivots on a highly unlikely fortuitous encounter.  And my inner biologist chafed at the laziness of the script’s repeated references to the non-humans as “apes,” by way of contrast to Homo sapiens.  Guys, go back and read your high school science textbook; we’re all apes!  (Though, to be fair, I discover I've taken the same linguistic shortcut in writing this review.  Sigh...)

Yet, most aspects of this film remain above your average summer fare.  The visual rendering of post-apocalypse San Francisco is marvelous, and the blending of the performance capture apes with their human counterparts is nearly flawless.  The range of emotion displayed by Andy Serkis and his fellow chimps definitely grabs the spotlight away from the non-furry actors.  None of the latter are particularly splendid, with Gary Oldman predictably playing yet another “poor tormented soul” role, but they don’t detract, either.  Even Michael Giacchino’s score occasionally sails above the bloated, brass-heavy bombast that is nowadays requisite for action movie accompaniment, with some snappy bits of percussion and piano.

(Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rightly rated PG-13.  I doubt that many younger teens will succeed in looking beyond the adrenaline excitement of the action scenes to any deeper meanings.)

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Great Beauty (Italy, 2013, dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

Considering that this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film centers upon a despairing older man confronting the void of his empty life, The Great Beauty is a surprisingly giddy ride.  After a brief prologue, we are introduced to the lead character Jep Gambardella at his over-the-top, cacophonous 65th birthday party.  A partygoer informs her neighbor that the middle-aged woman emerging from Jep’s huge birthday cake is an actress “now in full physical and mental decline.”  We soon learn that this former star is a fitting stand-in for Jep and his circle of acquaintances.

Through an early first-person voiceover, Jep tells the viewers that as a child, he was highly sensitive and thus destined to become a writer.  At the age of 18, he met his one true love who later left him.  At 25, he wrote an esteemed novella entitled The Human Apparatus.  A year later, he moved to Rome, where his downfall began.

Again through voiceover, Jep informs us that upon arriving in Rome, he determined not only to enter high society but become its king, wielding the power to make or break parties.  He became so distracted by these Roman festivities that he never again wrote a work of significance, nor formed another lasting attachment with a woman despite sleeping around copiously.

In the ensuing 39 years, Jep has become a jaded journalist who knows all of the important people in Rome:  we watch him mingle with a major newspaper editor, Italy’s greatest poet, a famous pop singer, and the leading Catholic cardinal.  He attends parties that last until dawn and hosts soirees at his apartment overlooking the Colosseum with his circle of similarly shallow acquaintances.  We meet Stefa, an ex-communist who now produces trashy reality television and lives in a luxurious home tended by seven servants; Lello, a lecherous toy exporter; and Orietta, an indolent rich woman who takes nude selfies but is lousy in the sack.  Jep tells his friends in one memorable scene that they are all petty, self-deluded, and on the brink of despair, and no-one disagrees.

Actor Toni Servillo adeptly plays the part of Jep, almost never deviating from a stylish, blasé comportment.  Only rarely does real emotion break through, with sadness at the passage of time as he contemplates a modern art installation, bereftness after the death of a woman for whom he’d begun to feel genuine affection, and wonder at chance encounters with wildlife.

In the hands of director Paolo Sorrentino, who also co-authored the screenplay, Rome itself has the lead supporting role.  Courtesy of Sorrentino’s frequent narrative ellipses and wildly varying camera angles, Rome overwhelms, seduces, and disorients the viewer (we can see how a younger Jep was so easily led astray).  We are served a jumbled smorgasbord of visual art, ranging from ancient sculpture and architecture to bizarre contemporary performance art.  Similarly, the musical soundtrack joyously overwhelms with a mix of sacred classical music, pulsing dance pop, and folk music, along with the alternately ethereal and sentimental film score by composer Lele Marchitelli.

A lesser director would’ve made an unpleasantly vertiginous mess out of these elements.  But Sorrentino’s efforts planted an exuberant smile on my face when I watched this on the big screen, in part because the story, sound, and visuals were consistently unpredictable.  One night Jep greets a group of old ladies playing cards in an ancient darkened palace, then another evening he happens upon a magician friend who makes a giraffe disappear (“It’s just a trick,” Jep is thrice reassured.)

The screenplay is also a web of parallels and contrasts, which I’m just beginning to unweave after three viewings.  Most notably, Jep is compared with two other older male characters.  The first, a fellow writer ironically named Romano (or Roma for short), has spent the same amount of time in Rome as Jep, yet has managed to cling to a heartfelt sincerity in his creativity and some degree of austerity in his lifestyle.  Romano manages to find salvation when he chooses to return to his hometown, telling Jep, “Rome has been a real disappointment.”

Second, Jep is curiously on a parallel track with Cardinal Bellucci, next in line to be the Pope.  Like Jep, the cardinal was once an idealist, even serving as the church’s leading exorcist.  But as he’s aged, he has become befuddled and avoidant when faced with spiritual matters, preferring to steer the conversation towards mind-numbing monologues about his favorite recipes.

Jep’s worldly cynicism and detachment are also held up against recurring images of youth and innocence, as we watch frolicking children in a formal garden and young lovers in a college dorm heedless of the world around them.  There is even a childlike Mother Teresa-like figure.  And though her handler’s tales are too fantastic to be believed (surviving on 1 ½ ounces of roots while still working hectically for 22 hours daily at the age of 104), she contrasts sharply with the Roman nuns and priests who flirt at fancy restaurants and visit a celebrity plastic surgeon.

So what does all of this mean?  To answer that question reductively about such a gorgeous work of art feels akin to pinning a butterfly to a specimen board, but I’ll tentatively offer an answer.  One of the most helpful philosophical and psychological guides that I’ve found on facing the challenges of life is Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy.  In this masterwork, Yalom posits that there are four “given’s” to life that we all must face in order to live fully:  death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.

Jep (and the city of Rome by extension) has failed all four of these tests.  Jep uses frantic busyness and detached cleverness to deny the reality of death.  Shallow acquaintances replace intimacy.  He has squandered his freedom on empty frivolity, and his considerable artistic abilities have failed to produce a meaningful work of art since his 20’s.  The Great Beauty of existence eludes Jep, and even more tragically, he stopped trying to find it 40 years ago.

(The Great Beauty is unrated in the U.S., but its graphic nudity and sexual situations would make me feel uneasy about showing this to any but the most mature and sophisticated of adolescents.  I suspect most teens would find its subject matter too adult-oriented for their interests anyway.)

5 out of 5 stars

The Fault in our Stars (USA, 2014, dir. Josh Boone)

“The world is not a wish-granting factory.”  The quality of a life is measured not by longevity, but by the zest and integrity with which it is lived.  These are valuable lessons for any person, young or old, a major reason I welcomed and appreciated John Green’s young adult novel, The Fault in our Stars.  Another valued aspect of Green’s storytelling is the light manner in which he carries his broad-ranging erudition, comfortably inserting references to Zeno’s “Achilles and the Tortoise” paradox, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into the flow of his engaging characters’ lives.

I’m happy to report that director Josh Boone, in his sophomore effort, successfully and faithfully brings Green’s story to life onscreen.  Even if he shows no unique personal verve in the film’s styling, Boone doesn’t stand in the way of a terrific narrative either.  No doubt, he was aided greatly by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s screenplay, as this duo has demonstrated a playful yet knowing skill in telling youthful tales in their prior efforts The Spectacular Now and (500) Days of Summer.

For those unfamiliar with it, The Fault in our Stars centers around the lives of Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus (Gus) Waters, a pair of older teens afflicted with cancer who meet at a support group.  Gus is immediately smitten with Hazel, but the young lady requires a bit more persuading:  given the fact that her metastatic thyroid cancer carries a graver prognosis, she fears intimacy with anyone beyond her caring parents.  When Gus uses his Make-a-Wish to give Hazel a chance to meet an idolized author in Amsterdam, Hazel’s resistance is finally eroded for good (and who can blame her?).

The three main teen actors – Shailene Woodley (Hazel), Ansel Elgort (Gus), and Nat Wolff (as mutual friend and cancer sufferer Isaac) – play their roles admirably.  Of the three, only Elgort falls into beefcake heartthrob territory, while the other two actors are refreshingly ordinary if pleasant in their looks.  Willem Dafoe as usual is fun to watch, playing the obnoxious drunken author Peter van Houten, a fellow whose pronouncements are wise and true, yet boorishly insensitive in their timing.  Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are solid in their supporting roles (in both senses of the word) as Hazel’s parents.  As a dad myself, it’s an added bonus to watch a film targeted for youth in which the parents are neither clueless dolts nor irrelevant Charlie Brown grownups.

I took pleasure in both the book’s and film’s use of metaphor, too.  Gus frequently has an unlit cigarette between his lips, symbolizing an object with killing strength that he refuses to empower – a bit of wishful thinking towards the cancer that threatens him and his two best friends.  Even better, Hazel and Gus enjoy a pair of dates at an Indianapolis park containing a giant human skeleton upon which a gaggle of kids clamber and jump.

For thoughtful atheists and humanists, I suspect the dialogue in which the young people struggle with encroaching oblivion and scrabble to find meaning in their curtailed lives will resonate meaningfully.  John Green was once an aspiring seminarian and briefly served as an apprentice chaplain at a children’s hospital, so it’s no surprise that church and ritual play a part here, in two especially notable ways.  First, the support group where Hazel and Gus meet takes place in an Episcopal church and is led by a not terribly insightful Christian survivor of testicular cancer.  Some nonbelievers may welcome this portrayal of a guy using his religion as a defense mechanism to ward off uncomfortable emotion, but for me, he was a caricature whose uncomfortable onscreen time was mercifully short.  Second, there is a religious funeral service in which the film’s irreverence is spot on, with a welcome bit of comic respite arriving when Peter van Houten counsels Hazel, “We need to fake pray now.”

More significantly, Hazel and Gus converse together about their belief or lack thereof in an afterlife, a very understandable concern for two youngsters facing terminal illness.  Regardless of their differing views on an unseen hereafter (which they handle respectfully and nonconfrontationally), a focus on the undeniable here and now wins out.  The screenwriters cannily shift their emphasis onto the “after life,” in terms of what happens to those who live on after a loved one dies.  Hazel, Gus, Isaac, and their parents freely acknowledge that in embracing the goodness and beauty that come with love, we also must accept the inevitable accompanying pain and grief.

The Fault in our Stars earns its PG-13 rating through occasional bursts of strong language and a couple of sexual situations.  But if you want to take your teens to a summer movie that favors well-earned tears and reflections upon mortality over explosions and collapsing buildings (that amazingly never snuff out the characters we give a damn about), I gladly commend this film to you. 

3.5 out of 5 stars

A Lutheran, Baptist, Buddhist, Agnostic, and Atheist Walk into a Movie Theater...

The title above may sound like a great opening for a joke, but no, that’s only me at various points in my lifespan.  That’s also me trying to be clever in explaining how I decided to write about films from a secular humanist point of view.  Regardless of my beliefs or lack thereof, I have loved movies for as long as I can remember.  What began as exciting childhood escapism has transformed into a portal to thrilling locales and contemplation of the big questions of humanity and existence. 

By way of introduction, here’s my religious and philosophical journey in a nutshell.  Born to Christian parents, I was baptized as an infant and received a solid junior and senior high school education in the Lutheran school system, where I had a conversion experience as a teen.  As a young adult, I was re-baptized (dunked this time), and for twenty years, I lived my faith vigorously:  I read my Bible and prayed diligently, ventured forth on 3 mission trips, taught Sunday school, and led youth groups. 

However, in my early 30’s, doubts began to slowly encroach.  I began to ask questions about a loving god sending non-believers and gay people to hell, about Christianity’s ugly past and often grotesque present, and about the Bible’s exclusive claims to spiritual truth.  I dabbled briefly in Buddhism but found the same logical inconsistencies in their dogma, as well as plenty of blood on their hands from unsavory infighting and warmongering.

My Buddhist dalliance was followed by a few years as a closet agnostic, ashamed of my doubts while thinking I was nearly alone in my skepticism.  Happily, some great books (a shout out here to William Lobdell, Michael Krasny, Bart Ehrman, Michael Shermer, A.C. Grayling, and the Four Horsemen) and the discovery of a local community of skeptics allowed me unashamedly and gratefully to embrace atheism, rationalism, and a generous humanism.

And it is from those three mingling sources that I plan to analyze movies.  Atheism rejects faith as baseless and corrosive.  Rationalism drives skeptical critical thinking in all arenas (political, philosophical, scientific, you name it).  Humanism urges kindness and respect for all, and for me, that “all” includes human beings, our fellow animals, and our world. 

(I do want to make it clear that I aim to act kindly and respectfully towards religious believers, too.  I will frankly critique beliefs that I consider irrational or harmful, but I endeavor to love everybody.  And truth be told, for my money, the most thoughtful and respectful online conversations about film can be found at  As a “non,” I am definitely in the minority, but for several years, I've enjoyed and benefited from my participation there.)

In writing overtly from an atheist, rationalist, and humanist standpoint, I am striving in my own small way to fill a gap in current film criticism.  I have no doubt that many excellent film writers embrace this secular trinity, but their employment of this framework has been less explicit than my intended usage of it.  The great and greatly missed Roger Ebert comes immediately to mind here:  check out his reviews of “Eat Pray Love” and “Hereafter” for his dismissals of supernatural woo-woo.

My passion for books perhaps surpasses my love of movies, so I plan to integrate my omnivorous readings of science, history, philosophy, and fiction into my film reviews.  As a psychiatrist with 20 years' experience and particular expertise in geriatrics, trauma, and the interface of mental health with culture and religion, my knowledge base in those arenas will inform my writing, too.

I'm committed to posting at least one review per week, with a healthy mixture of current cineplex and arthouse films, as well as classics from the past.  For those keeping score, the directors I esteem most highly are Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Francois Truffaut, Werner Herzog, and Wes Anderson, so you can expect talk about their films to surface in these environs.

(And for those wondering about my film criticism cred, during the past few years I've lectured to university audiences on psychological themes in film, contributed a chapter on Kurosawa to this book, and written essays and capsule reviews for Filmwell and Arts & Faith.)

Lastly, a couple of house-keeping points:

- I plan to use my own idiosyncratic five star rating scale for the films I review.  Here’s how it works:
            - One star:  you’re better off cleaning your navel than watching this movie
            - Two stars:  flawed, but with some redeeming qualities
            - Three stars:  a solid film, worth a trip to the cinema
            - Four stars:  will probably be on my end of the year “best of” list
            - Five stars:  a rare masterpiece

- As a father of 3 teens, I stay vigilant for well-crafted, thought-provoking fare for young people.  I anticipate that all of my reviews will contain suggestions about the age suitability of the film being discussed.

Thanks for reading.  Please visit again soon!