Category Archives: Movies & TV

The film “Beyond the Mask” and why you should go see it.

I’ve never been intimidated to do an review for a big Hollywood film because I have no illusion that anyone involved with that kind of movie would ever bother reading my review. But since I sat down with the Director/Producer team for Beyond the Mask, Chad and Aaron Burns, for a podcast interview (posting next week on the Brio Podcast) there is a possibility that they’ll see this, leaving me humbled in my attempt to review it.

This movie has a different distribution model whereby viewers have to buy tickets first and then the movie will come to their area. So you have to GO BUY your tickets NOW. I’ll be trying to get a group up to go see it here in central AL if you’re local, see the details at the end of this post.

The first thing I want to say is this: You should go see this Movie. I will say that to whomever will listen. Not because it will change your life or because it’s the best movie ever, but because if this movie has any measure of success then Chad and Aaron will make more films like it and they will get bigger and better. DeVon Franklin, a Christian Filmmaker who spoke at the International Christian Media Convention in Nashville last month, made an excellent point about this. He said that if Christian films are to ever achieve the scale and quality that we want them to be, we have to start voting with our pocketbooks; the more we go see films that reflect our values, the more the Hollywood machine will want to honor those values.

I didn’t go see God’s Not Dead, because frankly I’m not sure what movies like it hope to accomplish. They’re primarily reaching the people who are already plugged into a church and they don’t appear to be very entertaining. Having said that, making films is hard. I don’t think most people realize how much an accomplishment it is to have a produced a film with few noticeable production errors and a comprehensible plot, let a lone get it distributed and marketed to the point that the investors can at least break even. There’s no artistic medium quite like it, wherein you have to have millions of dollars to make a project happen. So I do not fault the folks at Pureflix for trying their best with what they have.

The Plot (a few spoilers here)

This film is a historical fiction. Like Ben Hur, the course of the plot follows characters who could have existed and just didn’t make it into the history books. The story centers around William Reynolds, an assassin who is finishing his contract with the East India Company. When he returns to Great Britain after what he thinks is going to be he last job he’s betrayed by his employer, Charles Kemp, played by John Rhys-Davies who is best known for his roles as Gimli in Lord of the Rings and Sallah in Indiana Jones.

Kemp attempts to kill Reynolds, but a traveling vicar manages to rescue Reynolds. The vicar dies in the process, but Reynolds takes the opportunity to start anew by assuming the identity of the dead clergyman. Reynolds travels on to the Vicar’s would-be new parish where he meets the beautiful Charlotte. Over a brief montage Reynolds and Charlotte fall in love, she believing him to be a pastor. Eventually one of Reynolds’ former assassin colleagues shows up and makes an attempt on his life. Reynolds kills him in the struggle.

Believing the last vestiges of his old life to be vanquished, Reynolds pursues marriage with Charlotte who insists he meet her uncle first. In walks, (BUM BUM BUUUUUUUUM) Charles Kemp, Reynolds’ former employer! Reynolds flees, this time aided by Charlotte’s servant, who is killed in the process and manages to give us a small heaping spoonful of the Gospel before he buys the farm. (Can this guy make an escape without a christian dying?)

Then we hit a time jump several months forward. Charlotte, Kemp, and (unbeknownst to them) William Reynolds have all moved to the American Colonies. Kemp, we find out, is part of a plot to stop the Colonies from declaring their independence. Meanwhile Reynolds has started working at a newspaper – the newspaper – the one run by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is, as he’s often portrayed in films like 1776, a source of joviality as he offers both wisdom and comic relief. Reynolds, hearing about Kemp’s plot, puts on a mask and rides around the colonies thwarting Kemp’s every move. This culminates when Reynolds stops an attempt on George Washington’s life, but ends up being framed for the attack. Charlotte visits him during his imprisonment and they talk about Reynolds’ new found faith in Christianity through all this. They escape and prepare for the final confrontation with Kemp.

The Good & The Fun

Aside from everything else, this movie is actually pretty fun. It starts off en medias with an old map – I’m a sucker for old maps and en medias storytelling – and we immediately get a scene of two assassins taking out a ship-load of men from afar.

The fight sequences and action scenes in this film are really fun to watch. The consideration that was taken for the various fighting styles of the day is clear in the great technical approach to all of the fight scenes. The “priest-fu” action scene where Reynolds fights his former assassin partner in his clerical gear is a pretty great fight scene and the action sequences in the colonies are real fun as well. I’d say the film is worth going to see just because of these scenes.

The computer generated imagery in this film is phenomenal. Aside from the fact that it is the first Christian film to utilize this scale of CGI, it actually looks really good and works for the film. This is a huge deal and it begins to open up the door for many more films like this one to add scale and believability to their productions, but my readers won’t be shocked to hear me say that I’m most excited that it also opens up the door for more fantastic elements showing up in Christian films. (Hey Chad, if you’re reading this, have you ever read Frank Paretti’s book This Present Darkness? Cause I’ve got a connection to the guy who has the movie rights to it. . . just an idea.)

The art direction, set design, costumes et al were really solid in this film. These are elements that you often don’t notice if they’re done well, but can ruin a film very quickly if done poorly. We’re so used to big-budget period pieces nowadays that we don’t give a single thought to the fact that sets had to be built, costumes had to be sewn, someone had to think is everything that appears in the ‘mise en scene’ something that could appear in the 1770s? I’m not a history buff, but to me I wasn’t taken out of things by the look or feel of the film which is a big accomplishment by itself.

There’s explosions too and the ending has a really great sword fight, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

The Cast

I have to say that the casting and acting in this film is good. Many Christian films are hurt by poor casting (they often just get whomever is available) and bad acting. The cast members do a great job of conveying their characters through an action/adventure film that could’ve easily been cheesy, but instead comes off pretty well through the film.

William Reynolds is played by Andrew Cheney, who has mostly just been in other Christian films up to this point. He does a good job of handling the character. Yes, there are a few moments where his performance could’ve been more nuanced, but this was new territory for him, and he did a great job in that role. He plays the character believably and the audience likes him. (something Hayden Christensen never accomplished) He does good work in the fight scenes as well.

The person I’m excited to see in this movie is the female lead, Kara Kilmer, and not just because she’s a lovely lady. (side bar here,) I first came across Kara when I watched a few episodes of Hulu’s reality show If I Can Dream, a Real World knock-off wherein all the people in the house are trying to “make it” in the entertainment industry. I went back and re-watched an episode before writing this review and I do not recommend that show, I can’t believe I ever watched any of it. Kara was the one shining light in the midst of a lot of sleaze. Where all the other cast members were cursing at each other and taking almost any part that was offered to them, Kara was really looking to do good quality work while being a Christian. There was an entire episode that centered around her decision to reject a part because it required nudity. She said “My faith effects the decisions I make about my body.” It was a real struggle for her because she turned down her first real role because of it. She was highly criticized for it by the other folks on the show including a director that accused her of wasting time by bothering to audition. I have to say it worked out for her, she’s now on Chicago Fire, and is the only person from If I can Dream who seems to have really “made it.” Congrats, Kara, you rock. (end side bar)

Aside from her allowing her faith to inform her career choices, Kara also is actually a good actress and every scene she’s in is better for it.

The stand out in the cast is John Rhys-Davies, who is the only really recognizable face in the bunch. He helps bring some gravity to entire project and, playing the villain, helps make the threat to our hero seem real. Chad and Aaron said in our interview that he was fun to have on set, having war-stories from his vast library of work.

The supporting cast is all excellent as well. I really can say that there isn’t a weak one in the bunch. And I mean that. People who know me know that I can be pretty critical of acting quality in a film, but the dramaturgy (it’s a word, look it up) in this film is solid.

Room for Improvement

Ok, if Chad and Aaron read this I want to actually offer some constructive criticism and also say to my readers that the film isn’t perfect. I am both a student of Christian theology and of film, so I do have my own thoughts about this piece, but I do think that when the average person watches it you’ll have moments where you might think there was room for improvement.

I present these in hopes that if Chad and Aaron read this that they’ll consider it simply as it is, feedback from someone who really believes in what they’re doing and hopes that they’ll continue to work and improve. I also hope they’ll see that I realize what they’ve accomplished already is huge (much more than I have for certain) and quite admirable by itself. Having said all this, I like to be as honest as I can in my reviews so here goes.

The Christian element in this movie could be improved. I say this knowing that everyone who is trying to put overtly Christian themes in any film is blazing new trails. Whereas you can hire a fight choreographer and stunt man who has worked on a dozen films and benefit from his experience, there aren’t many films that are including this kind of dialogue, and even fewer who have done it well. As such everyone making Christian films is still trying to figure out how best to have faith elements in their film. But please keep working at it, despite what I’m about to say:

The weakest part of the film is Reynold’s conversion at the end. While the Christian elements are basically strong up to this point, I felt like this was a little abrupt story-wise. I would’ve appreciated him asking a few more questions about faith and showing a little more interest before that point as it had mainly been others talking to him about it without him having much struggle/discussion in response. Salvation is difficult to depict, however, and I applaud their efforts. The discussion on a person wearing “masks” is an interesting idea. I do think it could’ve been explored a little more thoroughly. Having said that, I really do appreciate that they obviously erred on the side of “not preachy.” That’s a big plus.

The weakest single line in the whole script is when, a scene or two after his conversion Reynolds is going to face Kemp and he simply says to Charlotte “pray for me.” I really appreciate the attempt at bringing a spiritual theme into this scene, but I think about some of my friends who have been Christians for years and how they have a hard time saying straight out “pray for me” without being prompted. For many, prayer is very personal and private, especially for a person so new in their faith. It’s an awkward and intimate thing and I think the dialogue there could’ve reflected that more rather than being so blunt. I liken this a little to a scene in a movie where someone who was just handed a sword for the first time in one scene and is suddenly using it like an expert in the next. A person who is young in their faith should almost have a scene like in a superhero origin story where the hero first gets his powers and is awkwardly breaking things, and messing up his room (e.g. either of the first Spider-man movies.)

The pacing of the story feels a little strange at times. While I wouldn’t say that the film was too short, it did come in a scene or two under the two-hour mark and I wonder if it wouldn’t have benefited from adding those ten minutes in. Personally I wanted to see more of his time working as a vicar, a funny-awkward sermon or an interaction with a parishioner to take a little more advantage of the fish-out-of-water comedy (A la Sister Act) and then a little more during his time as a masked hero in the colonies. I’d like to have seen his decision to put on the mask and some kind of allusion to the importance of it, since that is a major theme in the film.

Finally, I would almost classify this film as a steam-punk kind of fantasy – which I’m totally into, but it might bother some folks. Yes, Ben Franklin did manage to start harnessing energy and created the first battery around this time. Yes, there were assassins with primitive sniper rifles at this time, but this film requires a pretty sizable suspension of disbelief for someone who likes things to 100% realistic (or as I call it, “boring.”) If you go into this with the mind set that it’s going to be totally historically accurate then prepare to be surprised. It’s a historical fiction that reads a lot like National Treasure. It’s real fun, but if you were the kind of person who didn’t like The Patriot because of the handful of anachronisms in that film, then this might be a challenge for you.

In Conclusion

I’ll say it again, you should go see this film. It could be the first of many other movies coming out that are in the action/adventure genre, but have an explicit Gospel message in them. I will be going to see it for certain and I’d love to meet up with you.

The film is only going to come to theaters where 50-70 people buy tickets (depending on the theater) So you have to go buy tickets if you want it to come to your area. So even though the movie doesn’t come out for a few more weeks you have to go BUY TICKETS NOW. I am trying to get a group up here in Montgomery. If you’re local you can look it up on the website by clicking here, entering Montgomery AL as your city and selecting the screening on Thursday, April 9th or just click here. Bring your family, your friends, your coworkers, or whomever you can find. We need to support this film.

The Giver: The Best Movie that Everyone is Missing

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I’m going to say something shocking: The Giver might be the best movie based on a young adult book released in the past three years. Those who know me know that I’m a big fan of the Hunger Games Series and Divergent. So you must understand that I don’t say this lightly. Perhaps most interesting is the strong Christian bent there is in the story and how clear this is in the movie. Particularly to me as someone who ascribes to Wesleyan theology.

In Case You’re Not Familiar…

The Giver is a book released in 1993 that won several awards and was very popular. It was also – as all good books are – controversial among parents and educators. Some said that it was too dark in its themes. Others were concerned about the description of what they considered a “sexual awakening,” though I think they missed the whole point of the book if they think that’s what it actually was.

If you read the book, watch the movie, or just read my review and you find comparisons between this book and the Hunger Games or Divergent, know that this book predates those by more than 15 years. In some ways it was the prototypical YA novel based in a dystopian society. Though I’m glad they didn’t pull a ‘John Carter’ and alienate the fan base of those books by advertising that it was “before the Hunger Games.”

Bill Cosby actually attempted to produce the Giver in the mid 90’s and Jeff Bridges at that time wanted to be involved, though he wanted his father, Lloyd Bridges, to play the titular character. Due to the controversy and the usual Hollywood studio rigamarole it never came to fruition. Funny to think that if the book had been released today there would be a movie of it being released two years from now. 20 years ago it was possible for a good book to just be a good book.

Book vs. Movie: Cage Match

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Comparing books and movies is like comparing apples with spark plugs. They have totally different purposes. When reading a book, entertainment value is often secondary to literary value, and the thoughtfulness of the piece takes precedence over how “fun” it is. While films snobs would bemoan it, the opposite is true of film. The artistic value is secondary to entertainment value. Simply put, books are a medium wherein people expect to think, while film is a medium wherein people expect to be entertained. More people are willing to pay to be entertained than they are willing to pay to think and thus movies make more money than books.

Despite all this, we know that the best books and movies are all going to be both fun and thoughtful. The Lord of the Rings, It’s a Wonderful Life, and almost all of the Pixar Films all have both of these traits. This movie is no exception, but that doesn’t mean it’s exactly like the book.

When directors, producers and screenwriters, make changes from a book to a film it’s not because they’re idiots trying to ruin your childhood, it’s just because they want to make money and they’re trying to optimize the work for that. So this is my warning for any purist who loved the novel upon which The Giver is based: don’t bother. The movie makes several huge changes to the story and shifts several other details that you may think are important. However, if you’re willing to say that perhaps the book was its own work, and that it, like every other great artwork, can stand being reinterpreted, then you can enjoy this movie.

The biggest single difference between the book and the movie is the simple fact that the third act of the story was almost totally fabricated for this movie. While there are other differences, this is the most glaring one as it makes the ending feel totally different, though it actually ends up much like the novel does. The second big difference – that has some people very upset – is that the characters are 18 instead of 12. If you’re wondering why this is, please see the first sentence of the previous paragraph. They did it because they thought it would make it more marketable. Children can’t go see movies on their own, but teens do. The movie would have to be PG-13 to accurately represent the book, and PG-13 doesn’t market to children. PG-13 is a desirable rating – just look at the top 10 highest grossing movies to date; almost all of them are PG-13. Honestly though, this has very little practical effect on the story and none that is negative. If the ages of the children are important to you then stick with the book. In fact, if that detail is really important to you, then don’t ever go see a book adapted to a movie because that’s the exact kind of detail that producers eat for breakfast.

Other differences include small details being altered that have effects on the story – Asher’s job assignment is different in the movie in order to set up conflict between he and Jonas later. Instead of being bordered by a river they’re on an enormous plateau surrounded by misty clouds on all sides. Jonas manages to convince Fiona to stop taking her medication so she begins to feel also. Even smaller details such as Jonas not using the word “apprehensive” to describe the way he feels about the ceremony. To someone who read the book they’d know that the entire first chapter Jonas spends the day toiling over what exact word to use. Then there’s the fact that instead of taking pills to suppress their emotions, they must take a computerized injection every day. Ultimately these changes are mostly good or neutral to the story. (Again, unless you’re a purist.)

Summary (here be spoilers)

The Giver is set in a dystopian future of our world. Everything seems ideal at first. There is no hunger, no war, no pain, and no poverty. The members of the community make jokes, enjoy their jobs, and live comfortable lives. As a part of this society’s peacefulness there is a heavy emphasis on “precision of language” a phrase that really means avoiding using words that are considered obsolete. (Similar to 1984) While people are friendly to each other and everything seems peaceful, somehow the world is cold, literally colorless, mechanistic and perfunctory. One of the important aspects of this is the daily injections (pills in the book) that make sure no one is capable of real emotions. They don’t feel emotional pain because they’re not capable of it. Think: Equilibrium.

People are organized into family units, though their parents are not their biological parents. In the book this is explained more clearly, but it is alluded to in the movie. One of the jobs in their society is “birth-mother” which is exactly what it sounds like. Families are assigned two children of different ages. When the children are old enough, they leave the home. When adults are too old to work, they are “released to elsewhere.” Release is mysterious process for the elderly, those who disobey the rules, or infants that do not meet the health requirements to be given to parents. Anyone can apply to be “released to elsewhere” from the community.

The film opens, like Divergent or the Hunger Games, with a ceremony. Jonas is a young man who is turning 18. This ceremony involves all the children of the community receiving commendations and new items representing their progress in the community. Jonas’ little sister is 9. She and all the other 9’s receive bikes; the method of transport in the community. They also honor the older members of the community who are going on to be released. Finally it’s time for the 18’s ceremony wherein they’re assigned their job in the community. Think: Sorting Hat meets Reaping meets Faction Choosing.

When Jonas isn’t assigned a job like the other kids, he’s 8-440worried about what’s going to happen to him. He soon finds out that he’s been chosen for the once-in-a-generation job as the “Receiver of Memory.” The chief elder (played by Meryl Streep who has already won eight more Oscars just for selecting this role) explains that this position requires certain skills and strength. Sitting among the elders is an old, disheveled, bearded man who Jonas recognizes as Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for 17 Oscars for the work he did at lunch today, but unfortunately he only brought home one statuette. The mysterious bearded many turns out to be the current “Receiver of Memory.” Jonas shows up the next morning at the Receiver’s lonely house to start his training.

The old Receiver explains that his job is to contain all the memories of the way things were before the community was established. Having memories allows him to see color, hear music, and understand the depth and importance of emotions. Jonas can’t understand this, so the old man takes his hands and proceeds to transfer the memories into Jonas. The first several memories are all good (though in the book this is a little different.) Jonas points out that since there is only one Receiver of Memory, he doesn’t know what to call the old man and so he simply replied “The Giver.” Jonas begins to see color and stops taking his daily injections. Though for most of this time he doesn’t begin to question the structure of the community just yet.

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All during this time Jonas’ father, a “nurturer,” brings home a baby that has been labeled “uncertain.” Nurturers are in charge of caring for infants until they are assigned to their parents. This baby was labeled uncertain because he was underweight. Babies that don’t hit their target weight are released in favor of the children who are stronger. Jonas notices that the baby has the same birthmark on it’s wrist that he has. He had also seen the same birthmark on the Giver. This signifies that baby “Gabriel” has the same ability to “see beyond” as both Jonas and the Giver, Jonas supposed that one day baby Gabriel might replace him.

Jonas, becoming more reckless, convinces his friend Fiona, a pretty girl who’s hair he can now see is red, to stop taking her injections. This is a big departure from the book, but it allows Jonas some companionship when she arrives the next day confused and upset and she begins to realize that there is something very wrong with their community.

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One day as Jonas enters the Giver’s house, the Giver is writhing in pain on the floor and as Jonas helps him up he accidentally receives the memory of war. This is upsetting and for a moment he doubts if he has the strength to carry on, but eventually he returns to find the Giver watching a hologram of he and a girl playing the piano together. The girl (a cameo role by Taylor Swift, who is only a little distracting) was the last one selected to be the receiver of memory. The Giver reveals that after receiving a memory regarding great loss that Rosemary applied for release.

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Taylor is that you? I can’t tell without your massive amount of eyeliner.

Things come to a head when Jonas acts as if release is nothing to be feared, but the Giver shows him a hologram of what release truly is: euthanasia. Jonas watches in horror as his father gives a shot to a baby simply because it was the lighter of two twins. Twins are not allowed in their community. This is the turning point for Jonas and he realizes that they’ve been murdering babies, disposing of the old, and killing off any rule violator his whole life. Because of the injections they don’t even understand the pain and value of life that they should be taking in. Jonas’ outlook on his family changes drastically. 1-440

Jonas and the Giver, now in agreement that things must change, devise a plan that Jonas will leave the community and go until he reaches the “memory barrier.” This device is added for the movie and actually helps explain the ending A LOT. The memory barrier circles around the outer boarders of the community. It’s created by towers and makes it so that anyone inside the barrier cannot remember the world outside. By leaving with all the memories, Jonas will break the barrier, releasing all the memories so that everyone back in the community will suddenly remember everything.

Jonas returns to his family unit’s dwelling to discover that baby Gabriel has been returned to the nurturing center to be released as he hasn’t reached his target weight. Knowing now that release means death, Jonas breaks the rules and goes to rescue Gabriel, stopping at the Giver’s house to tell him that he’s leaving the community that night.6-440

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, especially if you have read the book, because it’s gives much more detail about what happens after Jonas leaves the community and that’s the fun part.

The Production

My biggest beef with the movie’s over all production was more with its writing than anything else. I thought that the adaptation was good story-wise, but it was weak in some of the dialogue. For a story that emphasizes precision of language I felt there were a few missed opportunities to lift exactly from the book the words that were used. I also thought that more could be done to illustrate how the society worked, making it clearer that by all appearances, everything is okay at the beginning of the story.

Perhaps the weakest point of the writing was the fact that they include narration. Narration is often added by producers after a movie is near completion (as in the case of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner), so it may not be their fault. Narration in movies is considered weak because it’s not taking advantage of the visual medium. Now you may recall that I didn’t mention this in my review of Divergent, which included narration just at the beginning. The difference is the efficiency of use. The narration in Divergent was only at the beginning to set up the world, and it was both telling and showing. The same is true of the narration at the start of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring.

In The Giver, narration is used as a crutch throughout the film to fall back on when the producers are worried that the audience might not get it. It weakens the over all impact because it gives you the impression that Jonas has already experienced everything that we’re seeing and as such, there’s no real danger to feel because we know the whole time that he’s survived.

However, this movie is amazing from a cinematic production standpoint. If it doesn’t get nods for both cinematography and visual effects then there is no justice.

The first quarter of the film is totally black and white. As Jonas awakens to the depth of emotions, memories and the human experience color begins to slowly creep in. This is actually one of the most interesting things that the book tries to describe. I say tries because color is inherently visual and no amount of words can explain colorlessness, colorfulness, or any gradation there between. Ultimately this is the single most impressive aspect of the production and while I can describe it to you all day long, as I’ve said it must be seen to really be appreciated.
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The Cast

 

meryl-streep-the-giver-lg Brenton-Thwaites-the-giver-lg giver_xlg   The first people that will come to mind for anyone seeing the trailer will be Jeff and Meryl, but the main character is solid as well.

If you’re upset with the fact that Jonas is older, I I think you can still enjoy  Brenton Thwaites’ performance. He’s actually a solid actor and plays a likable and relatable character despite the fact that he’s in a strange, futuristic world that we shouldn’t be able to relate to at all. While he’s not going to be nominated for an Oscar, I think he brought a lot to the table. Any concerns I might’ve had about making Jonas older were quelled as soon as I saw him playing this role.

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Beyond that we have an excellent cast of supporting characters. Katie Holmes, I know, has received mixed reactions for her role in Batman Begins. I didn’t hate her in that, so maybe I have Holmes-blindness, but I thought she did a good job as Jonas’ mother in this, perhaps though she’s best suited to play an emotionless, unfeeling shell of a human being. Hm. Not sure. But regardless she played her part well. Then there’s Alexander Skarsgård. Who you may know from nothing. That’s not a film title, you actually know him from nothing. You may say “didn’t I see him in?” No, not likely. Ok that isn’t fair, he was in Battleship and True Blood. Did you watch either of those? No? Okay. That’s what I thought. Anyway he’s good too as Jonas’ father.   giver_ver7_xlg giver_ver8

Next we have Cameron Monaghan as Asher, if there was a weak one in the bunch it’s probably him. I’m not sure if it was because of the dialogue that was written for him or if his performance was truly sub-par, but he wasn’t all he should’ve been for whatever reason.

Odeya Rush plays Fiona. I respect the casting director for not going with a bigger name for this role. While miss Rush has made a career out of playing creepy little girls, she hasn’t been tested in this kind of part. She did well in adding some feminine hart to the story that focuses on two dudes for most of the time.

And finally we have that little cameo from Taylor1400864008_taylor-swift-the-giver-lg swift. Her role is pretty tiny really, and not at all jaw-dropping. The part of Rosemary is important to the story, but she doesn’t actually appear in person in the book, and the way they put her into the movie was such that anyone could’ve played the role equally effectively. I’m not getting at Taylor, she may be a great actress, but this part didn’t show any range to speak of, it seems odd to me that they would insert her into such a small role that just as easily could’ve been played by another small-name or no-name and probably just as effectively. However, it’s clear based on their marketing that the goal was to get teenage girls in to see this movie. Why else would such a small role get her own poster? So I guess what I’m saying is, you should go see this movie, but not because Taylor Swift is in it.

Christian Themes

The whole point of the book, to me as a Christian, is an explanation for the problem of pain. If you’re not familiar with it, the problem of pain or problem of evil (different problems, but two sides of the same coin) is the question of why, if God is loving and all-powerful, would He allow for such great pain to be possible. There are many good answers to this question that Christians have used to answer it logically, but ultimately the problem of pain is an emotional one that cannot be answered with logic.

The Giver seems to offer that if we were to find a way to get rid of pain we’d also have to get rid of love and ultimately get rid of choice. That’s when we realize that for great love and freedom to exist, the possibility of great pain has to exist also. When Meryl Streep’s character, the Chief Elder, assesses “when people choose, they choose wrong.” She is explaining why a society would come to a place where they would ultimately remove choice from the equation and remove one’s desire for anything but efficiency and preservation of continuity.

While pain is terrible, living a life without it means that we cannot tell right from wrong. It’s like C.S. Lewis says:

“Pain is God’s megaphone to a dying world”

– C.S. Lewis

We get an up-close look at a world without pain in The Giver and it’s terrifying. It results in the killing of innocents and loss of an understanding of the value of life.

The other obvious issue is abortion. If you’re wondering why this movie didn’t get good reviews, it had nothing to do with the acting or the production. This movie had a subtle, but somehow still very strong anti-abortion message woven into it. The idea that the only way to get rid of evil is really to get rid of our understanding of evil is entirely accurate and it results in our voluntary ignorance when we consider the controversies. Instead of trying to discern the truth, we do what is the most efficient thing for us, while ignoring the reality of killing children.

 Final Thoughts

I don’t want to build this movie up too much. It isn’t prefect. It raises questions (why and how would a society that can’t see color bother having color-coded uniforms for workers?) You may find it cheesy in places. you may find it weird. You may just not get it. It may get reviewed out of the theater before you even get a chance to catch it. It may be a blip on the cultural radar, and likely will be less than a blip. But I will say that I believe that not only is this the best YA movie of recent years, it might be the best christian movie since the Voyage of the Dawntreader.

And oddly, though the reviewers on rotten tomatoes only gave it a 30%, somehow the users reviewed it at 70% so normal people without an agenda seem to like it a lot. I give it a 4 out of 5 stars and highly recommend catching it in theaters.

X-Men Days of Future Past: A Review (spoilers, but just read it.)

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If you’re a fan of the X-Men comic books this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. If you’re a fan of the X-Men TV show this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. If you’re a fan of the other X-Men movies this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. If you’re  a fan of the X-Men line of chia pets… you get the picture.

If, however, you don’t like time travel, you’re not going to like this movie. If you don’t like the X-Men, you’re not going to like this movie. If you can’t suspend reality enough to enjoy a Sci-Fi/Fantasy action film, you’re not going to like this movie. If  your favorite X-Men movie was “The Wolverine” because of it’s much more character driven and has a somewhat realistic plot with only three mutants in it… you’re not going to like this movie.

I started my understanding of the X-Men with the 90’s cartoon on Fox TV. It was a controversial show among Christian mothers; I think someone at Focus on the Family had probably written a article about it. The issue that my mom had with the show was that it wasn’t always clear who was good and who was bad. For me, I never had trouble understanding that X-Men wasn’t as much about the typical super hero plot, represented recently by The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (reviewed here), wherein the Superhero gains powers, encounters tragedy, makes a vow to fight for good, fights bad guys – usually one to three individuals at a time who also has super powers and by defeating that one bad guy he saves his city who is typically very grateful. I like this formula, but the thing that is appealing about the X-Men is that it isn’t about that formula. It almost isn’t accurate to classify the X-Men films as “superhero movies” as they so totally break the mold. The X-Men stories are about the larger society, prejudice, fear, and how to be diplomatic in complex situations.

The Morality of X-Men is confusing and often changing according to who is a greater threat. Here’s my own take on it with a little help from our friends over at Dungeons and Dragons. Putting Magneto at “true neutral” is because of the aberration in the pattern of his actions. Half the time Magneto seems to be a team player, joining up with the X-Men to fight a greater evil, but the other half he’s trying to destroy humanity in an effort to establish mutant superiority. When you see his history, you understand why this seems logical, and it is done out of a sincere desire to help mutants. He also comes around in the end, as we see in this movie.

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I don’t want to over-hype it. It’s certainly not perfect. I’m not slapping any hyperbolic labels on it like “best superhero movie ever” or “best movie of summer.” But I might call it the best X-Men movie so far, if for no other reason than the fact that it bridges the continuity (or lack there of) between the original trilogy and First Class while paying it’s respects to the Wolverine films. Undoubtedly there will be many questions about this film as it relates to the others, but those details aside I think anyone who has seen and enjoyed the other films can enjoy this one. If you haven’t seen any of the X-Men films I want to say now DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. It will confuse the daylights out of you. It will probably confuse you a little if you have seen the X-Men movies, but at least you have some idea of who the characters are before you launch into multiple time-lines and young/old versions of characters. Rewatching X-Men 2, 3, and X-Men First Class would be helpful, though it will raise a few questions that I’d be glad to discuss with you at length because I don’t have anything better to do.

Before I launch into a synopsis, I want to emphasize that if you’re not a fan of time travel tales that you will not like this movie. This is a film that hinges on time travel and I know there are some people who are simply bothered by the impossibility and seeming arbitrary rules of time travel in any given movie and this film is no different. It is very wibbly wobbly. By contrast I know many people who love time travel movies. I’m one of them. Part of this has to do, honestly with my view of God as being outside of time. I see God as a being for whom everything is currently happening, everything has already happened, and everything will happen soon. I often like to think about the possibility that heaven exists outside of time and what does that mean for our eternity with Christ?

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It’s a ball of wobbly wobbly…timey-wimey…stuff. #DrWhoReference

As much as I would love to break down all the issues that time travel creates for this and the other six movies, both time-line and continuity wise, our buddies at Entertainment Weekly are paid to do this stuff, so if you want a fairly comprehensive article on the time line as well as some othe details of the plot you can read their article here. Aside from the usual illogical hatred for X-Men 3, I agree with most of the theories there. But let’s talk about the movie by itself and what actually happens.

The Plot

 

Xavier's ALIVE?

Xavier’s ALIVE?

Ok this is going to be confusing. We open in the not-too-distant future where we see several of our friends last seen in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, Shadow Cat (played by the now much more recognizable Ellen Page), Ice Man, Colossus, and a few new faces including a more obscure X-Man named Bishop. The first fight is just a couple of minutes in, and it might actually be the best fight in the film. Sentinels show up and kill almost everyone except Shadow Cat and Bishop who run to a back room where shadow cat uses her secondary mutation (made up just for this movie) and she sends Bishop’s mind back in time and everything disappears. At this point if you’re watching for the first time and don’t just know that’s what’s happening, you’re just not going to know what’s happening, especially when we go to the next scene and all the people we just watched die are still alive. While you’re still confused a new version of the Blackbird lands somewhere. Out of the jet comes Old Magneto, Storm, Old Wolverine, and Old Professor X. If the last thing you saw was X-Men 3, it might be a surprise to you to discover that Xavier is still alive.

If you’re worried that they’re going to give some half-baked comic book explanation of exactly how Xavier survived after being vaporized by Dark Phoenix in X3, don’t worry, because they don’t try to explain it at all. Instead they rely on you to have watched the after credits scenes in both X-Men The Last Stand and last year’s The Wolverine. Which gives you the detail that Xavier apparently transferred his consciousness into the body of a brain dead man and then reveals himself to Wolverine. They never bother explaining why the brain dead man looks like the old Xavier or why the legs of this body don’t work either. Oh well. You’re just going to have to accept that he’s back.

when listing the two things that get him out of bed in the morning...

when listing the two things that get him out of bed in the morning…

What’s even more confusing is the X-Kids’ explanation of what happened in that first scene. Apparently every time the Sentinels (giant robots that operate like the T-1000 from Terminator 2.) find them, Shadow Cat sends bishop back in time a couple of days to warn them. They then move their location so that they’re never found. If you followed that, you should have no trouble with the rest of the plot. Xavier then suggests they send someone back in time further and stop this war from starting. Shadow Cat says that she can only send someone a few weeks back in time without scrambling their brain. That’s when the movie-making machine at Fox stepped in and said, “yes but our big star is Hugh Jackman and he has the ability to heal.” And we, the public, have no problem with that because everyone but Dr. Cox loves Hugh Jackman.

That’s Right, because Wolverine can heal faster than anything can kill him, he volunteers to have his mind sent back in time into his younger body (conveniently played by Hugh Jackman because, as Shadow Cat reminds us, Wolverine doesn’t really age.) So after it’s made clear that if they’re caught by the sentinels this time that they’ll have no way out (as Shadow Cat will be occupied with Wolverine’s brain) they send Logan back in time.

There’s a random scene in which Wolverine is naked and we see his butt. I mention this because for one of my friends this was the reason he was worried about taking his kids. So there you go. It happens. It’s like four seconds.

Logan goes to the X Mansion where we find out that the young Professor X is depressed and is taking a drug that allows him to walk, but suppresses his powers. Beast is there also – he had developed said drug to hide his own mutation which actually kind of neatly alludes back to the Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hide reference made in X-Men First Class. Somehow Logan manages to convince professor X, not only that he’s from the future and needs their help, but also that they need to break young Magneto out of jail for… you know… reasons… Ok so, story-wise it doesn’t totally make sense except for the fact that this is what future Eric and future Charles tells him to do.

They go get Quicksilver, who is actually Magneto’s son – as is revealed in a small offhanded comment by Quicksilver. After wolverine says that they’re trying to break out a “guy who controls metal” Quick Silver says “my mom used to know a guy like that.” Which just gives enough of a nod to make us aware that Brian Singer is going with that version of the story. (Something that was lacking in X2 in the scene between Nightcrawler and his mother, Mystique – who doesn’t seem to think it necessary to mention to anyone that Nightcrawler is her son.)

X-Men-Days-Of-Future-Past2-300x200Quicksilver gives us an awesome scene in which they break magneto out of prison. Perhaps the most visually impressive scene in the movie is when we see Quicksilver’s point of view as he dispatches with a room full of guards by running around the walls while fire sprinklers have been set off. The scene is in slow motion except for Quicksilver. The water is falling slowly, bullets flying slowly and everyone reacting slowly as he darts around the room, knocking over several guards and pushing bullets out of the way. Then Quicksilver leaves because this movie has too many characters to spend any more time with him. Don’t worry we get one little clip of him watching TV with his little sister (Scarlet Witch?) And undoubtedly he’ll be in the next movie.

A trivial aside: many of you will be confused at this so I’m going to say it now in hopes that maybe you’ll remember it later. In Avengers 2 there will be a totally different iteration of “Quicksilver” and “Scarlet Witch.” They were introduced post credits after Captain America: Winter Soldier. These are the same comic book characters, but they are in different cinematic universes and are played by different actors. That is because there is a difference between movies made by Marvel and movies licensed by Marvel. All the characters in X-Men are licensed to Fox. That is why it is very unlikely that we’ll ever see Wolverine in an Avengers movie. Quick Silver and Scarlet Witch are shared properties in this agreement, however, so they can appear in either film. Because the studios are separate, though they are being interpreted differently and played by different actors. FYI Spiderman is licensed to Sony, which is why you’re not going to see Spider-Man in the Avengers. If you’re wondering why you won’t see Batman or Superman in the Avengers, please wear tinfoil on your head so we can all know who you are.

Then we get down to business. The whole goal of traveling back in time is to stop Mystique (“ooh ooh ooh! That’s Jennifer Lawrence! We’ve Got Jennifer Lawrence in that part!” Shouted the Fox execs) from killing Bolivar Trask. Trask is a weapons contractor with the military who is recommending to a congressional subcommittee that the US go on the offensive against the growing mutant threat by building enormous robots that are capable of detecting the “Mutant-X gene” and wiping out all mutants. It is explained to us that In the darkest time line, Mystique is successful in her assassination of Trask, but this leads to a public outcry against mutants. Mystique is captured and experimented on. Presumably she escapes before the events of the original X-Men but not before the new leaders of the Sentinel Program harvest Mystique’s DNA and use it to make Sentinels that can shape shift to beat any mutant.

shape-shifting Sentinel seen in the future.

shape-shifting Sentinel seen in the future.

We see Mystique in the midst of her various activities leading up to her Assassination attempt. We meet a young William Stryker (the bad guy in X2, and Wolverine: Origins) who is played by yet another actor, a Seann William Scott look-a-like named Josh Helman. This, in addition to the fact that Wolverine didn’t wake up in the Vietnam war, just solidifies the fact that we all have to basically ignore everything that happened in X-Men Origins: Wolverine… anyway… of course we meet Trask who is played by Peter Dinklage. I have to say that part of me was distracted by Dinklage, who of course has (say it with me) achondroplasia – a common form of dwarfism. The character of Trask from the comics is listed as being 5’10” so this was kind of a bold casting move, but Dixmen-days-of-future-past-trasknklage has such an intimidating voice and such a large presence that it only took a scene or two before I was more than cool with having him playing the major bad guy. Though, as one friend pointed out, achondroplasia is a real-life mutation… seems kind of ironic.

While they are successful in foiling Mystique’s initial attempt on Trask’s life, they make things worse as a camera catches the fight immediately following it which shows the world how dangerous Mystique, Magneto, and Beast all are. Magneto decides that it’s too risky to keep Mystique alive, so he tries to kill her, but she escapes into the crowd while Beast fights with Magneto. At the same time Wolverine is thrown for a loop when he sees young Stryker (who is responsible for giving him his indestructible skeleton and metal claws) and freaks out for a minute, causing us to see the future X-men toiling over Logan as he trashes about, accidentally stabbing Shadow Cat. The rest of the film we get cuts between the 1970s and the 2020’s to remind us of the ticking clock of the pending sentinel invasion upon the future X-Men.

The final confrontation takes place around the White House as Trask unveils his Mark-1 Sentinels – he doesn’t realize that the giant robots have been reprogrammed by Magneto. Upon their unveiling they attack the crowd watching. Xavier, who has over come his depression and is back in a wheelchair with his powers, is in attendance with a disguised Beast and Wolverine. At the same time Magneto uproots a local ballpark – I’m not sure which one – and drops it around the White House. This might be my biggest issue with this movie. The ball park around the White House thing seems totally unnecessary and does seem like just an attempt at some big visual at the climax. If someone had said “he wouldn’t attack the White House, the army would stop him!” right before he dropped the stadium around the white house it might’ve at least explained the logic, but even so – it’s not like the stadium doesn’t have doors. Or they didn’t have jets and paratroopers. It’s just easier to suspend reality around the White House battle.

At the same time, in the future the Sentinels have shown up and the real visual climax takes place as all the surviving X-Men battle to protect Shadow Cat and Wolverine from the shape-shifting Sentinels. Back in the 1970s Wolverine is sent to drown in the Potomac with several pieces of rebar stuck through his torso. Magneto is about the kill the president. (It was Nixon, so this would’ve been the best possible outcome for his career) when Mystique stops him. The whole event is on live TV and everyone sees a mutant save the president’s life. She then looks as if she might kill Trask, but instead drops the gun and walks away. In the future, everyone involved in the battle disappears. In the past we see Stryker later fishing a still-alive Wolverine out of the Potomac, but at the last minute it’s revealed that it’s not Stryker, but Mystique. This raises lots of questions regarding Wolverine’s origin story that I don’t have time to get into.

This is where the real spoilers are

I thought the movie might end after the battle.  If it did it would be a fairly satisfying ending, but instead we see Logan wake up. We know it’s the future, not only because of the white stripe in his hair, but also because his alarm clock radio is holographic. He’s in the X Mansion and he gets up and walks into the hallway. He sees adult Beast (played by Kelsey Grammar) and Rogue (Anna Paquin). He sees Shadow Cat and Colossus teaching a class. Then he walks towards Xavier’s office to see… Jean Gray still alive. WHAAAAAT? She of course isn’t at all surprised to see him, as no one in this timeline knows about the darkest timeline. Then from behind the door comes Cyclops. What-what? And finally he sees Professor X who quickly realizes that this is the Logan he met as a young man, now returned from their first adventure together. So basically Bryan Singer just rebooted X-Men, but with the same cast. They could go anywhere from here. They could make more sequels starring the original cast, they could tell another Wolverine origin story. OR they could do what they’re going to do and keep going with the First Class cast and do a movie about the baddest bad guy in the X-Men cannon. The after-credits scene isn’t all that surprising given the name of the next X-Men movie: X-Men Apocalypse.

The after credits scene may not be a shock, but it is, however, a huge treat to a long-time X-Men fan. It starts in the desert sands, so even without the title of the next movie, we have a pretty good idea of where they’re going with this. As the camera moves up we see thousands of people worshipping a hooded figure who has his back turned to us and his hands raised. We soon realize that the figure is using some kind of telekinetic ability to build a pyramid. The camera swoops around him so that we can see his gray face and in the distance – four horsemen. Boom.

In Conclusion

For an X-Men fan, this might be a five out of five stars, but for a more casual fan it’s going to be hard to follow and there are several issues. As such I’ll take the average and give it four out of five stars. Really really fun for the 8 year-old in me, but I’m aware of the fact that it’s not the best film ever made. So far it is my favorite comic-book movie this summer and that is saying a lot as I really did in enjoy Captain America. Is it good for kids? It’s pretty violent and, as I mentioned you do get a glimpse of Hugh Jackman’s best side. Also the themes are pretty mature (I mean that literally by the way, some people use “mature themes” to really mean “juvenile themes that you don’t want your kid to hear about.”) with blurred lines of morality it is something you’d want to consider. I’d say definitely not for kids under 10 and pG-13 is probably a pretty good guide for this one.

Hope you enjoyed the review, if you did please like, and use my facebook comments below to add your thoughts. And, if you’re in the mood, please share it with your friends.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: A Review (spoilers are marked)

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Preamble (a brief review of the Amazing Spider-Man):

It was midsummer 2004 when I went to the midnight showing of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 Starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. I was a huge spiderman fan starting when I was eight with the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon. I still have a copy of “The Sensational Spider-Man #0” which has appreciated in value by an impressive 98% making it worth almost $3. I really enjoyed the first Spider-Man movie, so I was primed to be a huge fan of Spider-Man 2. Many think it was the best of the original trilogy. It was one of the few examples of a sequel being arguably better than the original.

So here we are, ten years later – what about this new second installment? You should first know that I didn’t dislike the first Amazing Spider-Man movie, but that It didn’t knock my socks off either. I so identified with Tobey Maguire; he was so perfectly uncool – so totally nerdy that I identify with the guy far more than Andrew Garfield. But the biggest issue with the first chapter of this new Spider-Man is that we basically knew what was going to happen for the at least first half of the movie because we’d already seen it. Getting bitten by a spider, gaining powers, not stopping the guy that would go on to kill uncle Ben – that was all necessary to establish the “new universe” but we as an audience didn’t need to see it again. It was good. It was well done. It was arguably better than the first time around, but since it had been done well before (and just a short ten years before) it made the movie feel boring to me.

I recently re-watched it and found that I enjoyed it much more the second time around. Emma Stone is really what makes the movie. Andrew Garfield is great, but seeing a love interest that is as invested in Spider-Man as the hero himself is the strength of the movie. Andrew Garfield is also better at the comedic quipping that I do especially love about the character of Spider-Man. So you know that I enjoyed the first movie, but not as much as the original trilogy.

Down to business

So how did I like the sequel? Basically I found it to be exactly what it had to be, but that doesn’t mean everyone will like it. The movie opens with the same scene that the first movie opened with, only instead of being told from the perspective of young Peter Parker – it’s told from his father’s view. We then follow him after his disappearance to find out about what happened to him after he dropped peter off with Aunt May and Uncle Ben. There’s a high adrenaline scene in which we find out that Richard Parker has some kind of information on his laptop that he’s transferring to a secret location as he and his wife are fleeing the country. I won’t totally spoil how the scene ends, but it is action packed and I will say (possible spoiler) it is still unclear as to exactly what happens to Richard Parker, though we’re certainly lead to believe that he may not be alive. paul-giamatti-could-be-the-rhino-in-the-amazing-spider-2-2

Back to the present day and Spider-Man is in the middle of stopping Paul Giamatti (who I love for not being above this bit role) from stealing some plutonium that, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the rest of the movie’s plot. I thought this was odd because to paraphrase Chekov, “If you show weapons-grade plutonium in the first act then it must make someone a super villain in the third act.” But I suppose to paraphrase the mis-quoted Freud, “sometimes weapons-grade plutonium is just weapons-grade plutonium.” This scene is basically just setting up how life normally is to Spider-Man/Peter Parker these days. Meanwhile Gwen Stacy is giving her valedictorian speech at their high school graduation, for which Peter is running late. He makes it just in time. Shortly after we have a little teen angst as Peter and Gwen re-break-up because peter keeps on seeing Gwen’s Father everywhere. At one point they’re even nice enough to roll the clip from the last film of the dying Captain Stacy making Peter promise to not get involved with Gwen.

Here’s where things get complicated.

Here’s where the plot effectively splits into four different mutant sub plots. electro-amazing-spider-man-2-comparisonAt the same time we’re introduced to Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx. Max is saved by Spider-Man and develops a pitiful obsession with him. We’re shown that Max is a nobody who was cheated by his employer, Oscorp, when they stole one of his ideas for a power plant that is now powering all of New York City. He’s such a sad person that when he falls into a vat of electric eels and gains electric powers we’re almost on his side. The-Amazing-Spider-Man-2

 

Then there’s the on-going love story with Peter and Gwen. The fact that he checks on her every day even though he’s not maintaining contact with her is not at all creepy because it’s Andrew garfield. Though if Paul Giamatti had been in the role of Spider-Man I think they would’ve called this “stalking.” When they finally go on a date again (less than 20 minutes of screen-time after they broke up) we add the tension of the fact that Gwen is considering going to Oxford for college. (The one in England.) There is always the underlying tension of Peter’s promise to Gwen’s father to stay out of her life.

 

dane-dehaan-harry-osborn-in-amazing-spider-man-2Plot number three comes in the flavor of the movie’s most interesting new Character, Dane DeHaan playing the new Harry Osborn who, of course, is a mixture of Harry Potter and Jason Bourne. This iteration of Harry Osborn immediately has more pathos than James Franco’s Harry. Because 1) He’s not James Franco. 2) –possible spoiler– His dad dies at the beginning of the movie 3) We find out he is dying of the same thing. Harry wants to pick up where his father’s evil company left off in trying to discover a cure for the made-up disease that’s killing him. For some illogical reasons Harry believes that Spider-Man’s blood might be the answer to his problems. Because. . . spiderman. This is complicated by the fact that Harry and Peter were childhood friends. While DeHann has more gravitas as a performer than Franco, he sounds and looks like he’s about 15 which took me a while to get over since he’s promoted to CEO of a large company after his first scene.

 

Plot four involves Peter’s discovering the truth of his father’s involvement in Oscorp and what his research actually resulteScreen Shot 2014-05-07 at 9.52.01 PMd in. This also answers one of my biggest problems with the first “Amazing Spider-Man.” With the first movie I was bothered by the fact that Peter entered into an easily accessible room full of thousands of spiders and was bitten by one and got powers. I wanted to know why no one had been bitten before or since by these spiders and gotten powers. Well it turns out that when Richard Parker created these “Human/Spider Hybrids” he used his own DNA so only someone with his same genetic makeup could reap the benefits of their genetically enhanced venom. So there you go. That’s why peter was the only one who could get powers.

If that sounds like a lot…

Smythe…that’s because it is. It’s a little ridiculous and really it probably would’ve been fine without one of the plots. Many people will find it too long. Many people will find it too convoluted. In many images-2ways it could be compared to The Dark Knight in that it is darker, than the first and has a villain that doesn’t show up until the movie feels like it’s already supposed to be wrapping up. But the thing I liked about it is that it felt more like a multi-part story within the ’94 Spider-Man series. Because there were several seemingly unrelated bad guys. It’s also fun because they introduce us to other characters we haven’t seen before on the big screen, but are long-time Spider-Man regulars, Like Alistair Smythe, played by BJ Novak, who later goes on to become “The Spider Slayer” and Felicia Hardy, played by Felicity Jones, who eventually becomes Black Cat.

 

The point where this all comes to a head is after Spider-Man tells Harry that he won’t give him any of his blood, and Oscorp tries to oust Harry just as he’s been told that some of the genetically enhanced spider venom was kept after the spiders were destroyed, and Harry discovers that Max (now Electro) is being held at Revencroft, the Arkham Asylum of the Marvel Universe. After Harry unleashes Electro and forcibly takes Oscorp back, he then enters a secret room at Oscorp that basically has the power sources of all the remaining spider-man villains; Doc Oc’s arms, Green Goblin’s glider, the Rhino’s suit, and some other things. When harry finds the remaining venom and injects himself with it he turns into the Green Goblin and hops on the glider like he’d done it a million times before. That part seemed a little rushed to me. amazing-spider-man-2-electro-fight All the while Electro has pulled the plug on the entire City of New York. We’re reminded of how terrible this would really be as incoming planes can’t contact the tower and Aunt May is struggling at a hospital to care for patients. Then we come to the final battle with Electro, but it’s really pretty amazing how little we care about him at this point,  considering he’s played by the most famous person in the movie. Gwen shows up to help and actually comes up with the idea that finally defeats electro. At this point a normal movie would end, but not this film. We’ve still got another bad guy to defeat. hqdefault

And the biggest spoiler of all

You’ve been warned, the next few paragraphs contains the biggest spoiler of the movie. After the green goblin shows up and puts together the fact that Peter Parker and Spider Man are the same person because Gwen Stacy is hanging out with Spider-Man. (a stretch, I grant you.) they fight a while. Here’s the issue with this: We didn’t care as much about the battle with Electro, because Harry had been established as the main antagonist. Now we’re a little battle-weary by the time Harry actually shows up as the Goblin and so we don’t care as much about the battle that we were more curious about in the first place.

 

Then we come to the conclusion of the fight as the Green Goblin drops Gwen off from a high place. Spider-Man finally manages to dispatch with the Goblin, knocking out so easily that you question why he didn’t do it before. Gwen is falling  amidst the debris as Peter shoots a web down to her we shift into that combination of slow-motion accompanied by a particular dramatic theme that tells you someone is going to die. Gwen hits the ground milliseconds before the web makes it to her. She hoists up and Peter lands by her. For a few moments I was convinced that she was going to wake up. I’m rarely really shocked by a movie – especially a superhero movie, but this one surprised me as I realized – they killed Gwen. Matt Williams reminds me that this is canonical, that Gwen died in a manner very similar to this in a issue of the comic in the 70’s, but it still is a bold choice for the mood of Spider-Man.

 

The following scenes show peter staring at Gwen’s grave across multiple seasons. We’re told that Spiderman hasn’t shown up for five months. You read that right. The movie’s timeline continues five months after the climax of all the plots. The final scene is actually quite fun, as Spider-Man finally shows back up in a tear-jerking moment and fights Paul Giamatti again, now in the Rhino battle suit.

 

The denouement feels a little like Return of the King because it has multiple endings. But that is a better alternative than concluding on the note of despair that it could’ve closed out with. Marc Webb chose to not end the movie in the dismal hopelessness that we were left with at the end of The Dark Knight. I’m very glad he did. Spider-Man isn’t about indulging in the darkest moments of life. Even though he has some marked similarities to Batman, I appreciate the fact that this installment of Spider-Man, while the darkest one ever, sticks around long enough to leave us with some hope. 096

So what of it?

Ultimately in spite of the issues I have with it, I find it to be a fun movie. It over-stays its welcome by about 20 minutes, but I care enough about the characters to hang on. The character of Gwen really does carry much of it for me still. I did really enjoy Spider-Man’s quipping and antics in this one. It feels very much like the recent cartoon “Ultimate Spider-Man” which takes place within a similar continuity and is a lighter fare than most incarnations of the web-head. So while it does go darker than other iterations, it maintains an appropriate level of humor to relieve the tension.

 

Things I would’ve like to have seen: The deleted scene featuring Mary Jane meeting Gwen Stacy would’ve been fun. It’s pretty well known that Divergent star Shailene Woodley filmed a scene as Mary Jane Watson that was cut. It would’ve been fun to see this set up for the next movie. I hope Woodley isn’t too busy for the next Spider-Man, but it seems likely she won’t have time with her current schedule filming the Divergent sequel movies.images-1 I also would’ve been glad for them to bring back Norman Osborn at the end, revealing that he faked his death so that Harry would try the serum on himself. It seems like something Norman would do and also it would open up some interesting possibilities for the next chapter.

 

I’m going to give this one 3.5 out of 5 stars, but only because I’m rounding up. It’s definitely enjoyable and definitely worth seeing, but not without it’s issues. The pacing is awkward – the first half felt slow as it was spent setting up the four plots. The second half felt rushed in resolving them, the final few minutes felt somewhat superfluous after multiple battles had been resolved. But the battles are lots of fun and in comparison to the supremely awkward pace of Spider-Man 3, it was a paragon of storytelling. Go see it for yourself and if you already have seen it, do you agree? Do you disagree? How’d you like it?

The Muppets Most Wanted: Movie Review

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The Meta-verse almost imploded on herself

I love meta humor. I really do. I love it when a movie references itself in a way to make clear that we all know we’re watching a movie. It’s probably because I don’t like anyone or anything to take anything too seriously. The Muppets never take themselves seriously – because…muppets!

When I say meta, this is what I mean: This movie begins where the other movie left off. I don’t mean in a thematic way – or even in a plot way. I mean this movie starts at the second the last movie ends and moves on as if they just finished shooting that movie and now are shooting another one. They then make reference to the number of movies they’ve done and refer to the last movie several times – by saying “In the last movie…” I love this stuff. Since I grew up on Muppet movies and several lines from the movies have made their way into my family’s vernacular, I’m enjoying the fact that the Muppets know we’re all aware that this is the seventh (or eighth, depending upon how you count) muppet movie sequel. So right off, I love the humor in this movie.

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If you get this, then you get meta humor.

sorry that was basically unrelated.

The Story? Ohhhh the story!

While I could just get lost telling you about all my favorite gags and cameos, what’s funny is that this probably has one of the more solid Muppet movie plots (aside from Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island because they are based on classic literature.) In this story, after the success of the last Muppet movie the Muppets decide to go on a European tour. That’s when they’re approached by Ricky Gervais’ character, Dominic Badguy. He explains that the last name is french and it’s pronounced “Bajee.” He says he’ll manage their European tour and despite Kermit’s objections they decide to follow his lead. At the same time another frog named Constantine (that looks exactly like Kermit except for a small mole on his upper lip) escapes from a Russian prison and finds Kermit and replaces him. We soon discover that Dominic and Constantine are partners in crime and that the tour is a cover for a series of heists they’ve planned.

The plot then splits into three. First off, you have Constantine and Dominic with the rest of the Muppets as they go on their tour. At first the muppets think that things are great as suddenly this new “Kermit” is letting them do whatever they want and it appears that they’re playing to sold-out crowds. Meanwhile, the real Kermit is stuck in the Russian Gulag, an all-star prison that has Tina Fey as the commandant as well as Ray Liota, Danny Trejo (as “Danny Trejo” – not “himself” I’m serious, look at the credits) and even a brief cameo from Tom Hiddleston. As they realize that Kermit is not Constantine Tina Fey decides to use Kermit’s skills to put on a show staring the prisoners. And finally we have the undercurrent of Interpol inspector Pierre Napoleon (played by Ty Burrell channeling Peter Sellers) and Sam Eagle searching for whomever is responsible for these heists – the mysterious thief known as “The Lemur,” who we know to be Dominic.

As things unfold it becomes obvious that the gang doesn’t do so well without Kermit’s guidance and a few of them eventually grow suspicious of Constantine. Kermit manages to stage a breakout during the middle of the show he’s putting on in the Gulag while at the same time Sam Eagle and Pierre follow the evidence to Constantine and Dominic.  You can see how the three plots converge around the same time and hilarity ensues.

let’s talk about some cameos

Listen, I won’t spoil all the good surprise cameos for you, but I will say that this Muppet movie probably has more cameos than any other Muppet movie so far. Some of them are so quick that you may not even notice them. Others are so poetic you’ll wonder why the joke hasn’t been made before. My favorite part of the cameos is that it shows me the people in hollywood who are willing to poke fun at themselves and play a bit part for the sake of a short joke. It shows you the power of comedy and the star power of the Muppets. Who else could get Sean “Puffy” Combs, Lady Gaga, or James McAvoy to show up for what I’m sure was a whole day just to shoot a bit joke. That’s pretty amazing.

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The Rest of the Cast

I don’t have to tell you that Tina Fey was awesome, because Tina Fey is going to be awesome in anything she does. I was a little worried when I saw that the human element in this movie would be filled out by Ty Burrell and Ricky Gervais. Mainly because I’m not a big fan of Ty Burrell and I think Ricky Gervais has all the appeal of a rusty spatula being shoved in one’s ear. But, despite my apprehensions, they were both perfect for their respective roles. Ty Burrell was lovely as the french detective who takes six hour lunch breaks whenever he feels like and an eight week vacation right before the case is solved – a rare cheap shot to europeans that I really enjoyed. Since Ricky Gervais plays the very overt bad guy in this one we’re never supposed to like him, so I actually found it easier to enjoy his performance. Having the added benefit of the Disney-friendly script that comes with any Muppet movie, was helpful in this measure too.

Family, fun for the whole

As far as all that goes, I’d say that you needn’t worry about this being an issue for your kids. There aren’t any objectionable jokes and really not any scary moments. Even at a few moments where you’d expect it to get scary it immediately backs off and becomes funny again. It’s just a fun ride. I wouldn’t have any qualms about my six-year old nephews seeing it. The only down side is that – like all Muppet movies – kids won’t be able to appreciate the brilliance of much of the humor. It’ll be funny to them, but it’ll be funnier to their parents who are still young at heart.

Over all

It’s great. Great fun, good story, good characters. If there was a weak side I’d say that the music wasn’t as good as it has been in the previous Muppet movies, but that’s a tall order since in the eight (or nine) muppet movies they’ve made now there have been some outstanding musical numbers. The previous offering, the Muppets, even had a contender for best song at the Oscars. The songs, however were no less fun and with references to A Chorus Line and a cameo from a certain Canadian diva, the musical portion of the film is still very rich in its quality and humor.

From a Christian perspective I thought it had some interesting points. The muppets let their leader, Kermit, be replaced by something totally different from Kermit and none of them stopped to look and see what had happened. They also thought they were happier because they were all getting to do what they wanted to do, but the show was a disaster and they eventually realize that without Kermit at the helm, their performances suffer. To me, this is a powerful illustration about who we let take the lead and how we all have to realize that we can’t always have our way, but if we’re willing to submit to God’s authority that we can end up getting something better: unity and community.

So grab your family, grab your wife, grab your kids, and grab your husbands because you’re gonna want everyone to enjoy this one together. 5/5 stars, not because it’s the best movie ever, but because there plain ain’t nothing wrong with it.

Divergent: Movie Review

So here’s another in the long line of teen fantasy/dystopian/romance/drama movies-based-on-books. Is it any better than the rest? Is it worse? Is it a stand out? Is it worth seeing? Would I look good in a beret? Well the answers to those questions are yes, no, kinda, I’d say so, and of course.

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The book vs the movie

I know I’d make many movie reviewers upset by saying that I don’t believe, as they do, that the movie should be judged separately from the book. I do believe that a book should be judged separately from the movie, but the goal of any filmmaker who is adapting a book should be to do the original work justice. Their goal should not be to retell the story from their point of view or to take it in an entirely different direction. I believe that you cannot give a comprehensive review of a movie-based-on-a-book without reading the book.

As such my first compliment to the movie is this: as a fan of the book I was satisfied. While there were and handful of important changes to the book, none of them were to the characters. For the most part the plot remains the same with only a few details being left out – mostly, I’m sure, for the sake of time. There are also details left out because some things play on the page that don’t on the screen. Fans of the book might miss the random death of a initiate that doesn’t make the jump out of the train at the beginning. It’s small but I’m sure a few will miss it. Also the relationship between Will and Christina is non existent. In general all the secondary characters are glossed over in favor of streamlining the plot. All that and it’s still almost two and a half hours. Some will be upset that the character of Al is barely present, I’m sure, though it didn’t bother me at all. I think the greatest change is Tris’ interaction with Jeanine, who of course plays a major role at the end of the book, but is barely there otherwise. I thought this was a weakness of the book, so I see it as an improvement.

The Cast

The casting and the resulting acting were decent. I wasn’t overly fond of Theo James as Four. I thought he was a little too pretty. To be believable as someone Tris would be afraid of, he needed to be a little more grizzly in his appearance. Shailene Woodley was a good choice as she fit the description of Tris quite well. Her child-like voice drove home Tris’s small stature, innocence, and naïve nature. Zoë Kravitz did a good job rounding out the family tradition of playing relatively minor characters in Teen-dystopian best-sellers-turned-movies. She didn’t exactly fit the description of the character from the book; Christina is supposed to be taller than Tris, but she fit the character well enough that it didn’t matter.

The secondary characters were mostly strong, especially the veterans like Kate Winslet, (now 18 years past Titanic) and Ashley Judd (18 years past whatever Ashley Judd shot 18 years ago) who gave a gravitas to their characters that was sorely needed to convey their importance with relatively little screen time.  The antagonistic Eric and Peter were played by Jair Courtney and Miles Teller. Both did a good job of making me not like them. (Though honestly Miles Teller’s filmography makes me not like him) And Maggie Q was a good choice for the role of Tori, though I wish they had spent just another minute with her character. If there was a weak one in the bunch it was the role of Caleb played by Ansel Elgort. Part of it may have been the way the character had to be cut for time, but in the book I remember liking Caleb more and I found Elgort’s performance to be too anxty.

And one more “nit-pick” is Theo James’s accent. Whenever an American plays a Brit they get hammered if their accent sucks, but here lately we’ve been totally cool with outsourcing our male leads to guys who can’t do an north american accent to save their life. (I’m looking at you Charlie Hunnam) He isn’t as bad as his Pacific Rim equivalent, but just listen how James goes from midwestern US – to british – to Chicago all in one sentence a few times. Just listen, you’ll hear it.

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The production

The production choices were mostly great. Dystopian Chicago looks really cool and the attention to detail in the wide shots is very impressive. The choices of music were odd, however. If it weren’t for the music, the movie would otherwise be timelessly set in the future, but I’m afraid with the highly stylized pop soundtrack, including notes of dub step several times in the high-tension moments, there will be a constant reminder that though the movie is set in the future, we’re still living in the twenty-teens. And while we’re talking about strange choices I’ve got to talk about guns. Why do the guns in this movie look so goofy? This isn’t space or the 1980s. This is the US, did we forget how to make not-stupid-looking guns? I mean I guess if you were trying to make a gun with the purpose of having the other guy get distracted and laugh at you for carrying a supersoaker, then they accomplished their goal in the worst way.

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Did Doctor Doofenshmirtz make this thing?

It really took me out of the moment a few times when someone is wielding a weapon that looks like it was bought on the toy isle of the dollar store.

Ok Ok Ok, I’m being harsh about a small detail. Basically, it was great. The movie followed the book well and the acting was basically good. Let’s talk about the plot.

The Story

If you’re not familiar with it, in the story of Divergent takes place in Chicago of the future wherein the US has crumbled in the wake of some war and large cities have been reduced to City-states left to their own devices. To maintain the peace society has has formed an odd system of separating everyone into five factions. Each faction aspires to a specific virtue and specializes in a different part of society.

There’s Candor who believe in truthfulness above all else. They manage the law branch of government. There’s Erudite they value knowledge and therefore manage scientific research. Amity is the faction that values peace, they handle health and farming. Dauntless is the brave faction. They handle police work and defense. And Abnegation is the faction that values selflessness. They are public servants and head the government.

When they come of age every member of society takes a test that tells the where they will best fit. They then choose which faction they want to be in. Think Harry Potter Sorting Hat meets Hunger Games’ Reaping ceremony.

Beatrice, the main character, grew up in Abnegation and has always been fascinated by Dauntless. After the test she’s told that her test was inconclusive. The word for it is Divergent and it’s apparently considered dangerous for some mysterious reason. The dauntless are shown running around to energetic music during the film’s opening so it’s not much of a surprise when Beatrice or – Tris – as she comes to be called, chooses dauntless. The Majority of the movie is about her initiation as well as the growing tension between the factions.

The movie gets a few things about the plot a little better than the book did. The book presents several events that are happening in the background, occasionally bringing them to the foreground, but the climax of the book seems to come out of almost nowhere as the events that foreshadow the ending are played down. The movie managed this much better. They essentially spell out the ending for you. The details are different, but it doesn’t matter as much when it is much more clear as to why the bizarre events at the end are taking place. In the book it comes out of left field in the movie it’s a line-drive down the middle. Some fans of the book won’t like it, but it plays better on film this way.

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My thoughts

Even while reading the book I thought the premise was pretty crazy. It seemed too impractical to be believable enough as a world, but as I read on I felt like the world was well fleshed out and the characters seemed real enough to me. Eventually I got really engaged with the plot. While it’s not as good from a story or literary perspective as The Hunger Games, it still is miles ahead of series like The Maze Runner.(which would work better as an allegory)

It’s impossible to avoid the Hunger Games comparison with this book series and their films, but they are different books, written around the same time, and though they have many similarities; dystopian future, a ceremony, a scary government, teenage female antagonists, fight training, hunky guys… But that doesn’t discount its value as a story. While the hunger games is a better book in many ways, there are some things about Divergent that I prefer.

I hate love triangles as a story device and Divergent doesn’t have one. I can’t identify with a main character who has – as a major trait – an inability to get along with others. The story of Divergent isn’t quite as brutal as the hunger games, though it may not be as poignant. Because the premise isn’t an immediate turn-off, I don’t feel like I have to defend myself for enjoying it. And of course, the author, Veronica Roth, thanks “my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” first on her acknowledgments page.

The main thing I appreciate out of both the book and the movie is the fact that I  identify with Tris more than I did with Katniss. Of course, I’m a guy so I’m not talking about totally identifying with her, but we do have some similarities. We both grew up in homes that value selflessness. Our fathers are both leaders in the community. We both dealt with bullies who mocked our worldview. We’re both often underestimated. We both have a “goodie two-shoes” reputation. And people don’t think that we’d shoot them if we had to.

The world of Divergent does raise some interesting questions. What if our world were run by only the most selfless people? What if every person had to ascribe themselves to at least one virtue in order to fit into society? What would the world look like without one of these virtues? Are there any virtues that you would add? I could write a whole entry addressing some of these questions, but no one wants to read all that. Instead, I’ll say that if you ever want to have a discussion with me about it, I’d be glad to sit with you and talk about all the social/political commentary that the book has to offer.

Over all I’m not going to say that this is the best movie of the year, but it is fun and has lots of things that make it solid. The main character is very much like what the book described – a very different character from either Katniss or Bella, but still both a strong character that both guys and girls can identify with. The setting feels real, though it has a very fantastic aura surrounding it. Over all I’d recommend going to see it. 4/5 Stars.

Pacific Rim is way better than you think.

 

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So this summer has had more downs than ups in the big-blockbuster movie department. With several movies that weren’t “bad” but weren’t great either. It’s not that Pacific Rim is the best movie ever, it’s just that it’s so much better than any other movie this summer, it really outshines the competition. Put it up against last year’s line up of Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers or the previous summer’s Harry Potter Finale and it’s just “pretty good.” But in the backdrop of this year’s meager offerings it ranks easily as “AWESOME.”

The basic story is that giant Alien monsters have started coming through a portal in the floor of the pacific ocean. The monsters have been attacking major cities and to combat them humanity built giant robots called Jaegers (Yay-grrr, it’s German for hunter.) These giant robots have been mostly effective in fighting the monsters (which are called Kaiju) until the few years leading up to the main course of the plot wherein the monsters coming out of the portal have gotten much larger. It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi B-movie and in some ways it is, but there’s much more to it than that.

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Now that I’ve thoroughly undersold it, let me build it up some. Pacific Rim has been often compared to the Transformers movies. But it is different in several key ways. The Transformers movies are about an annoying guy and his way-too-unbelievely-good-looking girlfriend and some robots were fighting too. Not sure which ones were fighting because they basically all look the same and between the camera shake and lens flares they all looked like an auto show in a blender. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the first one for the novelty of seeing a transformers movie. But after that, I was done, because I didn’t care about the characters. Really, comparing Pacific Rim to Transformers is like comparing apples to some fruit that was okay on the first bite, but after a while just got boring and confusing. I hate fruit that’s boring and confusing.

Even though the main character is a British guy with a bad fake American accent, and even though some of the dialogue is cheesy, even though the score sounds like the background music from an episode of Magnum PI,  you can push that aside because you actually care about the characters. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket. He looks a lot like Garrett Hedlund from Tron Legacy, who I assume wasn’t available, because he would’ve done a better job. But  does a great job – it helps that he’s speaking in his native accent.  is adorable,  and  provide some good comic relief, and  is his usual kick-butt self.

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So you probably just said “I don’t know any of those people.” And that’s because the movie is cast mainly with B-Listers. Ron Perlman shows up for a cameo role, but for the most part you’ve got a movie full of somewhat recognizable faces without too recognizable names. It was a good choice for Del Toro to not spend his money on the actors, but rather on production, which is very solid.

Guillermo Del Toro, the director, isn’t a house hold name either. He’s most known for his Spanish art film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is probably the best film that I ever hated. In that picture he showed his prowess for introspectively crafting a plot that focuses on  a few characters while something larger in scope is taking place around them. And while Pan’s Labyrinth has very little in common with Pacific Rim, you can see that same technique applied, making the scope seem both epic and personal at the same time.

This is accomplished because Pacific Rim is surprisingly original in the details of the plot. The Jaegers are operated by a neural interface  so that the machine does what the pilot does. Early in the Jaeger Program they discovered that the neural load was too much; the Jagers were too large to be operated by one person so a two pilot system was implemented. One person is the left hemisphere, the other the right. This means that when the pilots are in the Jaeger they are synced in what they call “The Drift.” Which means that they can see each other’s minds – they’re memories, hopes, and fears are all open to their co-pilot. There are no secrets in the Drift. This is a powerful plot device. As pilots must be “Drift compatible” it becomes difficult for Raleigh to find a new copilot when his brother dies.

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Perhaps the biggest way that the movie gets you to care about the characters in by simple editing. You’re constantly being reminded that these big robots are being piloted by humans that are fighting for their survival. And as we watch the pilots perform kung-fu movies in sync with each other, it’s an added bonus that we’re being treated to some cool CGI monster/robots fights. Because who doesn’t like to see an enormous ocean freighter swung like a baseball bat?

As a friend said afterwards “This is what little boys are imagining when they’re playing with their toys.” And it’s the truth. I think most guys will find that this movie awakens the “little boy” in them. With elements of Top GunGodzilla, Independence Day, and yes, Transformers, this movie is just nothing but good ‘ol summer fun.

I have to say I went into this film with low expectations, so I don’t want to raise yours unduly, but it definitely exceeded what I had in mind. From the plot, to the characters the entire thing is simply an enjoyable ride. I was expecting tedious, inscrutable fights, but I was surprised at how entertaining the entire thing is. So while this isn’t going to beat out The Avengers, I certainly think that it is worth seeing on the big screen. And in the category of movies about giant robots, this one wins best picture.

Man of Steel follow up.

From my earlier review:

There could be discussions going on forever about how Superman is like Jesus, as well as discussions about places where the similarities break down, but it is the choice to make this an overt part of who superman is what brings strength to the film.

Well the past week I’ve seen several negative comments and reviews regarding Man of Steel, especially from Christians. Since my review was generally positive, I’d like to add a follow up:

  • This movie is not an allegory. I never intended to indicate that it was in my review and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. Going through the movie detail by detail pointing out every dissimilarity between this movie and the story of Christ is, I believe, missing the point. The great thing is the fact that it allows us to create discussion, which is the most you can realistically expect from a summer-popcorn-blockbuster.
  • I’m not going to go point-for-point and answer every criticism on where the similarities break down because that would be Tedious and I think the movie is meant to create discussion, not treatises. But, to address one of the complaints I’ve heard, it involves (spoilers) the fact that at the end of the movie Superman kills Zod. I knew when I saw it that it was going to controversial among long-time Superman fans as well as Christians noting the Christ imagery. Some say that it’s too far off the character of Jesus for Superman to be effective as even an abstract Christ image. I guess if were forced to draw the metaphor out, I believe Zod is representative of Satan. Read about the battle of revelation and you tell me if you think that God intends to love Satan to death.
  • It was a basically respectful view of Christ out of the same guy who brought us Watchmen, 300, and Suckerpunch. Let’s think about how amazing that is. I can already imagine hearing from the filmmakers, “We give up. We tried our best to put Jesus in a movie and you guys complained. You complain about everything.” Can we, for a moment, celebrate the fact that someone in the entertainment industry saw value in the person of Christ?
  • The most valid point in any of this, I think, is the concern that Jesus is being used as a device to “spice up” the story in order to get Christians interested. I’d say that this is almost definitely the case as the director is not a Christian. To me this is the issue tha troubles me the most. I don’t like the idea of “using” Christ for personal gain. But keeping this in mind, when you see dissimilarities between Christ and the movie, understand that there were probably really few actual Christians involved in the production process. To this I’d say don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – at least not while the gifting farmer is still there. I’d challenge you to think of these people as you would a young Christian telling their story. They may not know all the words to use or the exact right theology, but they’re trying – even if they don’t have the best motivation.
  • No, the movie is not the gospel message. And yes, if you take it literally there are many problems. Some problems probably do need to be addressed, so I don’t mean to sound overly pejorative toward those who are addressing them, but to be honest, I expect very little from hollywood. I want to be as affirming as possible of their efforts to satisfy the Christian community. As someone who was reminded this weekend of all my Christian friends who are working in the film industry, I just want to say how hard it is to get any kind of overt Christian message into a mainstream movie.

The only two big block-buster movies I can think of that basically get it right are Les Miserables and Passion of the Christ. The former was popular because it was a well-known broadway musical and the latter was a hit mainly because it was seen as controversial. I don’t put Man of Steel in the same category as those films. It’s more of a look at Jesus from the view of a non-christian, which I always find helpful. And, again, that is why some commentary may be necessary.

I want to say this: Jesus can take care of himself. To quote Shane Hipps, The Gospel needs fewer guards and more gardeners. Don’t be threatened by the fact that every detail doesn’t match up with a Christian worldview. See this film as what it is: an opportunity to talk about Jesus where otherwise there wasn’t one.

Man of Steel Review (spoilers are labeled)

Last week I was fortunate enough to get tickets to an advanced screening of Man of Steel, The latest Superman movie. The movie comes out this weekend.

Some Background (you may wanna skip this)

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Catching you Up: For the Newbies Only

If you have never heard of Superman, I want to say first off, congrats on being born this morning and I’m really honored that you chose to read my review on your first day of life. Allow me to introduce you to Superman, the most classic of all the Superheroes. He was created by two young Jewish boys in the 1930s and has since been in six major motion pictures, three live action television shows, five animated series, countless comic books and graphic novels, and a broadway musical.

The Character of superman has evolved over the years, but for the most part he’s stayed the same. Superman was born on the planet Krypton. Because the planet was about to collapse on itself his parents, Jor El and Lara El, decided to send their new born son to another planet.

This little boy, who they named “Kal El,” landed in a little town called Smallville, Kansas where he was raised by a farmer and his wife, John and Martha Kent. The Kents named the baby boy “Clark.”

The environment of Krypton was much more harsh than Earth, having a more dense atmosphere, an older sun, and heavier gravity. Because of this Clark adapts to earth by developing what appear to be super powers – he seems invulnerable and is able to fly. His strength and speed are superhuman as are his senses.

Depending upon which movie you watch or comic you read, Clark found out about his extra-terretrial parentage at some point when he was living with his parents and eventually leaves on a quest to find out about where he came from. Taking a relic left for him by his Bilogical Father clark journeys to  the far north where, near the Arctic, Clark finds his answers in the fortress of solitude – a fortress built from Kryptonian technology created by Jor El. This is when Clark first meets his biological father through an artificial visage. After receiving some training on how to hone his abilities, Jor El sends his son out to save the world and make it a better place than Krypton ever was.

Clark moves to Metropolis and gets a job as a reporter for the “Daily Planet” so he can keep his ear close to the ground. This is where he meets Lois Lane who  falls in love with Superman/Clark and eventually (again depending upon which version you’re referring to) discovers his identity.

The Trouble with Superman

The problem with a superhero that can’t be killed is that there are no apparent limits. In the classic superman stories he really only had two real weaknesses. #1) Kryptonite – that’s radiated fragments of his home planet that crashed the earth when he did. They glow green and make him weaker than the average dungeons and dragons game master. OR #2) Lois Lane – the bad guy would imprison Lois somewhere far away from wherever he was planning his scheme such that superman ‘couldn’t possibly’ save both Lois and Metropolis.

Superman PosterThe problem with this is that it’s predictable and boring. Not only is the plot boring, but the Character of Superman is boring. He’s not an interesting character because we can’t relate to him. He doesn’t have any true threat of death – which is a key part of the human condition as I understand it. Most versions of superman haven’t strayed too far from this formula, but that didn’t bother anyone for a long time because it was Superman. He’s a classic character. So what if the Christopher Reeve Superman are cheesy and implausible? They’re the first time that we see superman on film with reasonable special effects.

But by 2006 the novelty of the character had gone and Bryan Singer’s sequel Superman Returns was really just more of the same superman we’d seen almost thirty years earlier. At that time I questioned whether it was even possible to make a superman film in a post-modern world that doesn’t believe things like ultimate truth, righteousness, and selflessness. Cynicism gets in the way when you’re talking about a superhero that does good no matter what.

That’s why I probably wasn’t as excited about a new superman film as many of my friends. I was hopeful, but not overly so. I think that I can say that Man of Steel Showed me that not only does Superman have a place in the post modern world, but he has a very important role to play.

Ok, here’s the review.

Zack Snyder was an interesting choice for the director of a Superman Film. In one way the choice was logical, he’s is best known for movies based on Graphic novels, 300 and Watchmen. But anyone who has even seen the previews of those films can tell that they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from the shining Clark Kent. What makes Snyder work as director is the fact that he didn’t alter the Character of superman, he just altered his setting. He placed him in a world that was darker and grittier, giving us a view of this classic character in a present-day, post-modern setting.

The Plot (here be spoilers)

Man of Steel starts on Krypton where we learn that Jor El (played by Russell Crowe) is trying to reason with Krypton’s High Counsel who won’t accept the fact that Krypton’s core is collapsing. We also learn that for centuries children have been born artificially in something called a genesis chamber. Baby Kal, who is being placed in a nifty mini-space ship, is the first natural born son of Krypton in a long time. Around this time a Kryptonian named General Zod shows up and starts to seize control of the counsel. This doesn’t work out for Zod and he and his lackeys are shot into the phantom Zone. This might be the weakest plot device of the film, as it basically means that the Kryptonians decided to punish criminals by sending them off their planet that was moments away from exploding – ensuring that the only Kryptonians to survive are the most evil ones (aside from baby Kal.) I’m sure the hard core fans will come up with a reason for this, but it seems pretty foolish for a race that’s supposed to be way smarter than humans.

The first hour of the film is spent getting to know Clark, played by Henry Cavill (the soon-to-be sexiest man of the year). We see where Clark is as a young adult today, going from job to job under false names and occasionally saving people. But we’re also treated to flash backs that tell us a little of what it was like for young Clark, growing up in Kansas as a budding superhero. We get an idea of how Clark was raised in a good home by good parents. We’re also getting introduced to Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams.

Lois actually meets Clark while they’re both on a crashed Kryptonian spaceship that has been found near the Arctic. After he saves her he flies off with the ship leaving Lois with a story that no one will believe. So like any good reporter she begins to investigate and eventually traces this mystery man back to Smallville where Clark meets her and explains why he hasn’t come out of hiding. She agrees to keep his secret (probably because he’s so darn dreamy) and returns to the Daily Planet.

An alien craft shows up in Earth’s orbit and sends a earth-wide broadcast. It’s Zod. He explains that earth has been harboring one of his people and if the people of earth turn him over then they will all be spared. Clark takes some time to try to decide what to do and (this is where it gets interesting) stops by a church. We can assume it’s probably a Methodist church because, as devotees may know, Clark Kent was raised Methodist. If you don’t believe me look it up. You can find it most recently mentioned in Action Comics #850, August 2007.

The first time Clark makes a public appearance as Superman he turns himself over to the Military and agrees to surrender to Zod. Before they take him to his doom, however, Lois chats with Superman and we get this interaction that you see in the trailer.

Lois: What’s the ‘S’ stand for?

Clark: It’s not an ‘S’ on my planet it means hope

Lois: Well here it’s an ‘S’

They’re interrupted right as Lois is about to suggest a name that the s could stand for starting with “Super.” We’ll just have to assume that it was going to be “SuperGuy.” For those who are curious, yes this is canonical with the superman story. Though it was ret-conned long after the ‘S’ had been emblazoned on his chest. The “S” is a Kryptonian rune that is the family seal of the house of El, superman’s family.

The rest of the plot involves lots of buildings getting decimated and some fights that were confusing enough to make Micahel Bay say “Touché, Snyder.” While there aren’t any true ‘twists’ there are some things that I’d say were a little unexpected toward the end of the film. You do see a darker superman than we’ve seen on screen before, but it ends on an upbeat note even if most of Metropolis is in ruins.

The Cast

Henry_Cavill_Superman2Henry Cavill was a good choice for Clark Kent. While he’s not American, (neither are many of our other super heroes these days; Batman, Spiderman and Wolverine to name a few) he has a perfect mid-western accent. I took one of my sisters to the screening and she commented briefly on how handsome Cavill is. I don’t think I can ever remember her making any such comment over a celebrity before, so I’m just trying to tell you that this guy is gonna make all the ladies swoon. His performance is solid and not at all cheesy. It’s driven by realistic emotion and he plays it in a way that is actually relatable. I’m not sure that there wasn’t some guy out there who could’ve played it just as good, but I do think he was a good choice especially for this particular rendition of Superman.

Amy Adams is going to make you love her in any role that she’s in. One of my friends expressed concern for her ability to play the role of a spunky, abrasive reporter, but she did it well. She’s just as brash and cunning as any other depiction of Lois, but she does it with a smile and red hair. Lois actually plays a much more active role in this film. She is equal parts damsel in distress and sidekick, much like the character of Gwen Stacy in last year’s Amazing Spiderman.

mosjorelRussell Crowe as Jor El might be my favorite casting choice in this film. While I’m well aware the Crowe is a jerk, I’ve been a fan of his work since Gladiator and I was happy to finally see him accept a role like this. Keep in mind that Crowe was offered roles like Morpheus in The Matrix and Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings. He turned them down, but he’s finally made a solid stride over to the nerd side of the force by playing a very convincing father-of-superman.

Diane Lane and Kevin Costner were solid as the Kents. Yes, I said it, Kevin Costner was solid. This is the first role I’ve actually liked him in since Field of Dreams. Maybe he should just stick to movies involving supernatural things happening to farmers. My friends will know that the thing that gets me up out of the bed is the hope that I’ll get to see Kevin Costner and punch him in the face and say “THAT WAS FOR ROBIN HOOD!” But yeah… Diane Lane was great.

Man-of-Steel-EW-2-Zod

Michael Shannon played General Zod. He may have been the weakest character, but not by much. I liked him mostly, but something about him seemed a little unbelievable as a warlord from another planet. Maybe it’s the fact that he looks like the genetic composite of Rainn Wilson and Jaoquin Phoenix. Or maybe it’s the fact that I just have a little trouble relating to an alien who wants to destroy earth anyway.

There are many other casting easter eggs for über nerds. Lots of actors from other shows and movies coming in to play minor characters. My favorite might have been Alessandro Juliani, who was Dr. Hamilton in my favorite interpretation of  Superman, The CW’s Smallville. Juliani plays a very minor role, but enough for fans of the TV show to make the connection.

My thoughts

Superman’s role in the movie is strengthened greatly by Snyder’s choice to fully embrace the Christ Imagery in the film. I was talking to a friend who was surprised to find out that Superman was depicted as a Christ-figure. I let him know that this is nothing new. The first superman film has plenty of the same in it, but they lean heavily into in this version of the film. I think the only way that superman works is if you accept the fact that he’s ultimately good and is willing to sacrifice himself to save the world. This is the story of Christ in a nutshell.

But it’s not just in the story it’s in the details as well. Think about it. Clark’s Kryptonian name is Kal El. “El” is an ancient hebrew word for God. His father sent him from beyond our world to lead the people of earth. At one point in this film Jor El goes as far as to call him a “bridge between two worlds.” He’s the only son sent to lead the Earth. Did you catch that or do I need to pull out a Gospel tract? The scene in the church has the most obvious image. And I almost hate to spoil it for you by pointing it out, but I want to make sure you see it. Just check out the choice of stained glass behind clark when he’s in the church – specifically the scene being depicted. It’s definitely symbolism.

There could be discussions going on forever about how Superman is like Jesus, as well as discussions about places where the similarities break down, but it is the choice to make this an overt part of who superman is that brings strength to the film. In a world that is falling apart, a world that is dark and gritty and all too real, we want a hero, but we question if one this good could ever exist. People question if Superman is trustworthy, if he is really good, if he is on our side. This makes it a fun movie for Christians. We get to say to people, “You do realize who superman really is, don’t you?” and explain all the parallels. I’ll be curious how this is received by the general populace.

There are several departures from classic superman lore that I believe were good choices. The main two that I noticed were: # 1) Lois knows Clark is superman from the beginning. There’s none of this business where Clark is sitting two desks away, wearing glasses and Lois – the greatest investigative journalist on the planet – can’t recognize him. That works fine in the comic and the cartoon, but not in live action. And #2) no Kryptonite. While I’m sure it’ll show up eventually in the sequels, they manage to come up with a plot where Superman has weaknesses beyond the green, glowing meteor rock that feels like a prop out of the original Star Trek series. They also show you that it is entirely possible for Kryptonians to be killed, even on Earth.

Did I love every minute of it? Not at all. I found the amount of rampant destruction to be tedious. My initial review of the movie still stands. After the screening I posted on Facebook that one’s enjoyment of the film is directly corollary to your tolerance for gratuitous amounts of massive destruction. The fights are also filmed in such a way that it can be difficult to keep track of what exactly is happening. If you saw Transformers 2, you’ll know what I’m talking about. (If you haven’t seen Transformers 2, I’m not encouraging you to go see it unless you like lots of twitchy, confusing robots fighting for no discernible reason.) This is just part of the annoying trend in filmmaking to pretend that Stedicams don’t exist. I haven’t met anyone that has ever said “I loved that movie’s hand-held camera work.” I understand that it’s an artistic choice, but that doesn’t make any more pleasant to watch.

The way that Snyder moves along a plot is sometimes frustrating. I would’ve like to have seen him spend more time on plot development and less time on buildings falling over. This is only noticeable a few times in the film, but I found myself feeling like I had just skipped a scene a few times. This detracts from the otherwise high quality of the production and performances that is generally more on par with the Dark Knight Films (which of course were directed by Man of Steel‘s Producer, Christopher Nolan.)

Is this a family film? Not by any means. While it’s not as dark as Nolan’s Batman films, this is definitely not a bouncy, sun-shiney, comic-book movie. It’s pretty violent. Several Characters die. Half a city is leveled. A planet explodes. In addition, there’s a fair amount of foul language. Scenes of young Clark getting bullied are accurate to the experience of getting bullied on the bus – and involves some vulgarities. There’s no sexual content to speak of, though we do get to see Cavill shirtless a couple of times. (That boom you just heard was all the teen girls rushing out to see this movie.) I’d say the PG-13 rating is pretty accurate; kids under 13 might find this one a bit too intense.

Ultimately, I do recommend it. I think it’s an entertaining movie that brings the Superman mythos into the 21st century. It also has some great themes and symbolism that can make for some good post-movie discussion. So check it out this weekend.

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A few Thoughts on Les Mis

les-miserables-2012-comparison-poster

Here’s what you need to know first:

– First you need to know that I’m a pretty big fan of the stage musical, which I first saw live when I was only 11. It was performed by a broadway touring group at the Johnny Mercer theater in Savannah GA. I’ve seen it live one more time since and have seen the PBS broadcast of the 25th anniversary numerous times. I have been a fan for most of the past two decades.

– I’m also a big fan of the 1998 film adaption starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. No, it’s not the musical, but to me it caught the essence of the story in a beautifully acted and wonderfully shot film.

What I liked:

– As for the 2012 film: The performances by the actors were excellent, especially due to the fact that the music was being captured live on the set at the time of the shooting: something that is almost never been done for a movie musical. As a result the performance controlled the pace of the music, not the other way around. This resulted in some really powerful moments.

– I love the story of Les Mis more than any adaptation of it, so as long as any given adaptation stays true to the story I will like ultimately.  As this edition stayed entirely true to the story, I accept it into the pantheon of interpretations there have been of this musical. I especially love that they didn’t skimp on the Gospel message which is clearly contained in the plot.

– Casting. Hugh Jackman was a great Valjean and… well I could go down the list. If you could get used to Russell Crowe’s singing style then there wasn’t really a weak one in the bunch and most of them were very good.

What disappointed me:

– The cinematography. The movie looked beautiful, but it lacked a great deal of variety in the way it was shot. I’m sure that because they were recording the singing live the director wanted to emphasize the resulting performances, so every solo is done almost entirely in close up. This succeeds in showing all the nuance and skill the actors had, but doesn’t take full advantage of the medium.  There are few establishing shots that give you the scope of a scene at it’s beginning. Only at the big finish do we see where we are and by that time the scene is over. They also do little to explore the space. In this sense they might have well have been a stage show. Almost all the solos take place within a space of ten square feet. There’s no walking around an entire huge space or passing from location to location – something that you can only do on film. Randomly they would have these very awesome crane shots that  were almost distracting as they seemed so out of place in what was a lot of stationary camera work. Also there are several really random uses of canted angle that seemed very out of place. A couple of times I thought “Is this building supposed to leaning?”

– There were also shots where they had chosen the musical performance over perfection. In the scene where Valjean is buying Cosette’s freedom you can catch her looking right into the camera for a few seconds while Thenardier grabs her and begins to haggle. There are also a few shots where you can tell that the Steadicam rig bumped into something mid-movement and the frame shakes randomly. This is perhaps most noticeable during the scene after the Bishop frees Valjean; when Jackman is circumambulating (again within his ten square feet) the bishop’s chapel.

But, at the end of the day…

I loved it, even if there were some thing I didn’t like about it. It’s such an incredibly powerful story, heavy with theological themes – especially surrounding grace. I would really recommend seeing it – it will tug at your heartstrings, and if you don’t find yourself crying by the ending then you might be an evil robot sent to destroy us. Just a heads up.