Friday, September 30, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Myths & Nightmares

During my time in a Roman Catholic seminary twenty years ago, the late philosopher-professor Joseph Campbell was revered for having situated Christianity within what he termed the "monomyth," a millennia-spanning heroic adventure found in every human culture. Today, Campbell -- who was raised Catholic -- would likely be condemned as an apostate given the Church's current, conservative climate.

For the uninitiated, the new documentary Finding Joe (opening today in Los Angeles and soon to rollout nationally) serves as a crash course in Campbell's life work involving myths, slaying and/or befriending figurative dragons, and the ultimate encouragement, drawn from Hindu tradition, to "follow one's bliss." Utilizing interviews with such diverse personalities as Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) as well as a number of clips from movie classics including the Star Wars saga, The Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz, Finding Joe provides considerable insight into Campbell's writings if not necessarily the man. (To learn more about Campbell himself, check out Bill Moyers' late 1980's PBS series, The Power of Myth.)

The film -- written, produced and directed by Patrick Takaya Solomon -- is nicely shot and edited but generally employs a standard "talking heads" approach and lectures more than it engages. It is strongest whenever it quotes Campbell directly, with such reflections as "Many of us are metaphorically-impaired" (referring to the equation of mythology with metaphor) and "I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive" among the stand outs. There are also some charming vignettes sprinkled throughout in which children dramatize chapters from Campbell's seminal work, A Hero with a Thousand Faces.

There is also wisdom to be found in Campbell's conclusion that true power results when each of us learns to "love and accept yourself as you are." Finding Joe may not be the most accomplished piece of cinema, especially when compared to some of the Campbell-inspired films it spotlights, but its subject remains undeniably inspiring.

What might ultimately emerge as one of the best movies of 2011 also opens today in LA and New York City: Jeff Nichols' excellent suspense-drama Take Shelter. Frightening, moving and thought-provoking by turns, it stars Michael Shannon (an Academy Award nominee for 2008's Revolution Road and soon to be seen as the villainous General Zod in the Superman epic, Man of Steel) as Curtis LaForche, an unassuming Ohio sand miner with a loving wife (Jessica Chastain, current belle of the cineplex ball in the wake her eye-opening turns in The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt) and deaf daughter.

Curtis is well respected at work and in their community. However, just when the LaForches are prepping their daughter for a cochlear implant that will, if successful, enable her to hear, Curtis begins to have apocalyptic visions and nightmares involving a devastating storm, flocks of angry crows and a pack of seemingly-escaped mental patients out to get his little girl. He subsequently becomes obsessed with expanding and fortifying the family's storm cellar, much to his friends' and neighbors' consternation. Are Curtis's dreams prophetic, or is he succumbing to the same paranoid schizophrenia that struck his mother (a cameo by the always welcome Kathy Baker, of Picket Fences and Edward Scissorhands fame) when she was the same age as Curtis is now?

I think master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock would have approved of Take Shelter, especially with its visual allusions to The Birds and its beautifully ironic finale (which will likely polarize audiences). Shannon deftly balances the stoic and the terrified, and Chastain gives another, now seemingly expected great performance. Also fine are the movie's eerie storm effects and other effective scares dished up by Nichols along with visual effects supervisor Chris Wells (Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and editor Parke Gregg.

In the end, Take Shelter powerfully illustrates that the only real safety to be found when disaster looms -- whether real or imagined -- is with the one(s) we love.

Reverend's Ratings:
Finding Joe: B
Take Shelter: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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