Blue Like Jazz (2012)

Blue Like Jazz is all the latest rage around the world of art-loving Christians, not necessarily for its cinematic achievement or artistic prowess, but rather for the anomaly that it is when it comes to “Christian” art. Sprouting up here and there are thoughts, opinions, and angles on the film directed by Steve Taylor, based on the popular memoir by Donald Miller. Each discusses whether this film does the book justice, what it means for both “Christian” moviemaking and artmaking, and whether or not a secular audience can not only enjoy the film, but whether it will usher them into the spiritual realm like it is supposed to(?).

Sure there are many fimmakers out there who are Christians and are making movies, so this is not a completely new thing. In the last few years I have seen several films that explicitly touch on Christian subjects. Directors like Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) or Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The New World) have made movies deeply influenced by religious beliefs, while movies like Of Gods and Men, Higher Ground, and Secret Sunshine all deal with living the Christian life (and yet are highly unseen by a Christian audience, but they sure do seem to find a lot of Christian metaphors in Braveheart or Gladiator). I think Blue Like Jazz differs from those films because they are either released from mainstream marketing or from independent distributors that critics ogle over, while Blue Like Jazz mostly finds itself being advertised within the “Christian” market (most notably for me: Relevant Magazine and during a Gungor concert). In this sense they have a lot more to do with past “Christian” films such as Fireproof or Facing the Giants.

In this regard is also where Blue Like Jazz differs and thus finds itself lost between two different markets (perhaps as a bridge…). Blue Like Jazz features language (7 s-words as PluggedIn will tell you), sensuality, and other things that aren’t as church-appropriate. It pushes the limit on what is allowed to be discussed at church, while having a level of quality and openness to allow critics and secular moviegoers to enjoy it. It stands in the middle between two very different worlds and invites both sides to come and meet, without so ever choosing a side.

It is for this reason that this an important film; the release of the film itself will do more for Christians and movies than anything actually in the movie could do. Having to do stand in the middle, may in fact prevent the film from reaching a level of greatness.

Blue Like Jazz follows Don Miller, a young Christian in Texas living a sheltered life within his Baptist church. When something shatters Don’s life and view of the church, he leaves town, headed West to liberal, wild, “free” Reed College in Portland, Or. There he learns to shut his mouth about any Christian upbringing and learns the Reed mantra of living “free” through wild parties, civil disobedience, and lectures based on radical ideologies.

The film really does this all very well. Marshall Allman plays Don very well and the supporting cast does a great job playing the eclectic characters he meets. Production-wise, the film is no Avatar, but for something that was saved by a Kickstarter campaign, there is certainly nothing to complain about. The thing that the film does the best is the humor, portraying some hilarious (and horrifying) images as well as great dialogue that satirizes the conservative church. One reason I loved Donald Miller’s work is for the humor that he brings to it, and the film certainly brings that part out.

The real problem with the film lies in the lack of struggle Don shows during his time at Reed. As Don leaves his life behind, he instantly rejects everything about his old life. The notion that Don would completely and instantly reject his sub-culture is believable and would have been interesting had there been more struggle and questioning shown. Instead, Don mocks religion and spends his time with beer filled, bike-fixing sessions. His anger at the church turns more into shame, rather than angry rants at God, and as a viewer, it wasn’t engaging.

The film’s conclusion even points to the fact that it isn’t about doubting, but about being ashamed, as Don gives a speech about “being ashamed of Jesus”, whilst asking for forgiveness of the church. It is here that being a bridge brings down the quality of the movie. By trying to teach young Christians you don’t have to be ashamed at the same time as asking forgiveness for all the sins of the church, it seems to want to throw a bone to both sides of the bridge, in a way that is less than subtle. The meditative approach of Miller’s work seems to get lost in the climax and resolution of the story arc, with the loose ends getting tied up a little too quickly, nicely, and conveniently.

It is a film worth checking out if you are interested in religion, are a Christian, or have read the book. If you are not, I still recommend it, because really there’s not many good films in theaters right now anyways. Blue Like Jazz will be remembered many years down the road, more for the impact that it will have, than for the content within the film. I look forward to what director Steve Taylor will do down the road and am always on the lookout for new things written by Donald Miller.

3/5

Rango

Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s latest collaboration takes place far away from the storming seas that the Black Pearl swayed on and finds itself in the deserts of an unknown location, likely somewhere in California or Arizona.

Depp plays Lars a lizard in this animated feature who creates plays with inanimate objects while in his cage as somebody’s pet. He longs for meaning, for some sort of tension to occur in his life outside of his plastic environment. His wish comes true when his cage is thrust from the vehicle he rides in (no backstory is given to his prior life) and he is forced to survive in the desert. A place, that technically, he is made for, but has yet to ever live in.

As the story continues, he eventually finds a town called Dirt, where he makes up a new identity for himself, a tough cowboy like figure named Rango. After a few accidental victories over the town’s bullies and a bird that haunts the town, he is thrust into the sheriff’s position; one that apparently is refilled often.

The town is in a water crisis and with the water supply running low, it is up to the sheriff to both protect the existing water supply and to look out for the people he rules over. Of course, he is not alone in this and in charge of the town is the mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty), who controls when the water is to be given out.

From here, the plot is fairly predictable. There is a corrupt leader, our hero tries to save the day but somehow fails and ends up revealing that he is not the hero he claimed to be, he is thus outcast while the town suffers at the hand of the corrupted leader, the hero realizes that within his true self he has the ability to save the day (and figures out the key to the whole problem) and returns to face his fears and the corruption that lords over the town eventually getting the girl in the end.

Its unoriginal plot structure wasn’t the most pathetic I’ve ever seen, but when you’re sitting in the theater trying to determine how much time is left based on what point the movie is at in the typical hero archetype, you know there is some sort of a problem.

Rango never really seemed to add up. Subtle parts that seemed like they would come back to mean big things thematically, never really appeared again. There are certain shots, characters, and interactions that would have lead down interesting paths had they been pursued, but evidently Verbinski wanted a more cookie-cutter like film. It seemed like it either wanted to go a lot deeper than it did and failed, or they had to cut scenes out for time/marketing purposes.

Depp is great as the voice of our false hero and the animation is fantastic. The filmmakers really attempted to go for something different animation and editing wise and  this was certainly successful, giving the film a more artsy edge to it than its other animated competitors. Just Rango himself looked amazing, and it is a wonder how they were able to make his eyes look like they did. If only they would have put more of that focus and originality on the plot, we could have had a pretty good film on our hands, instead it turns into a run-of-the-mill animated film that is not really worth recommending.

2.5/5