Thursday, May 10, 2012

Marvel's the Avengers

Rated PG-13.  Running time: 2 hours 22 min. 

(c) 2012 Marvel/Walt Disney/Studios

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
                                                                                 Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
                                                                                        1 Corinthians 12.26:

The new Marvel Comics film will make more sense if you have seen the previous adventures of the costumed superheroes, but even if you haven't, there is a lot to enjoy in this spectacular extravaganza. Director Joss Whedon, aided by co-writer Zak Penn, keeps the story moving at a fast pace, yet takes the time to develop the character of each of the  superheroes and their contentious relationships. There are plenty to keep track of, so the film's almost two and a half hours are not at all too long a time for this. The gang includes SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). There are also, of course, Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the adopted brother of Norse god Thor who is league with aliens to destroy human civilization.

In case you haven't read the comics, SHIELD, the creation of Nick Fury to protect humanity from all sorts of super evil, stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. Whereas the earlier films dealt with one or two of the Avengers, this time Nick Fury has brought them all together because each of them is needed in a combined effort to beat back Loki and the alien race the Chitauri. Loki has penetrated SHIELD's hidden lab where an all-powerful energy source the Tesseract is being examined. He is able to kidnap and control the minds of scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) and Hawkeye in order to help him use the Tesseract, which can also open up a portal to the universe of the Chitauri so they can descend on earth. There follows a series of battles, at first high above the earth in and around SHIELDs super ship, a gigantic aircraft carrier/hover craft, and for the last half hour, a spectacular war in and around towering buildings of Manhattan. (Special effects addicts will love this incredible sequence!)

The earlier films dealt with the theme of society rejecting anyone who deviates from the norm—and no one is more deviant than our super heroes! This time the theme is well summed up by Rodney King's famous question/plea, “Can't we all get along?” Some of the Avengers are jealous and/or suspicious of the powers of the others. Thor and Iron Man actually come to blows in a delightful sequence. Nick Fury finds himself in the role of Scout Master/mediator, pointing out that their mission is too important, their foes so formidable that all of their gifts are needed if humanity is to be saved. It is during this middle section of the film that the script is so superior to similar films, with delightful back and forth banter between the characters. Just a sampling:
1. Bruce Banner/The Hulk: “We're not a team. We're a time-bomb!“
2. Tony Stark: “Let's do a headcount: Your brother, the demigod; a super-soldier, a living legend who actually lives up to the legend; a man with breathtaking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins; and you've managed to piss off every single one of us.
Loki: That was the plan. 
Stark:  Not a great plan. 
3. Tony Stark/Iron Man:  “Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.
Dr. Banner: Thanks
4. Stark: Falling in line's not really my style. 
Steve Rogers: You're all about style, aren't you? 
Thor: You people are so petty, and tiny. 

Although by no means a great film, it will bring great pleasure to adventure lovers. The genius of Stan Lee, creator of Marvel Comics, has been well transferred to the screen in that he has given us characters with super human powers but who still have to deal with very human shortcomings—and I don't mean those of the various villains, but of those far more difficult to deal with shortcomings, those within ourselves. Pogo was so right when he declared, “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Those Far Away Places in Two Film

Many years ago one of the hit songs heard everywhere included the line, "Those far away places with the strange sounding names that are calling, calling me." One of the reasons why I love film so much is its power to transport us to those "far away places" where we meet interesting people who see the world differently from myself and my friends--and yet, as their stories unfold, whose feelings are not so different after all. Such is the case of the two films briefly discussed below.

Boy (Not Rated)

Rocky, Boy and their father play "Army."
(c) 2010 Unison Films

Director Taika Waititi's film is an inventive coming of age tale set in a Maori Village in Waihau Bay, New Zealand during 1984. 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston), an  ardent  Michael Jackson fan lives with his grandmother, his younger brother  Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), several little cousins, and the goat, the latter being their source of milk for the impoverished family.

Their father Alamein (played by the director) was imprisoned a little before Rocky was born, and their mother died shortly thereafter. Thus Boy often has had to watch over Rocky and their cousins, as is the case now when Gran is away for a week attending a funeral at the other end of the island. Despite his family responsibilities, Boy spends a lot of time with friends, sometimes making a fool of himself when he tries to impress a girl with his poor imitation of Michael Jackson's Moonwalk. Rocky fantasizes that he has superhero powers to make things happen--and when he tries them out, sometimes the person slips or trips so that the lad is convinced that he does.

Boy has nourished his dreams of his father being a hero, so he is very happy when Alamein drives up with two doltish friends who fancy that they form a tough gang. Although Dad does play with the kids (indeed, he seems more of a kid than boy at times), he spends most of his time smoking pot and digging with his friends holes in a nearby field. It seems that he has buried a sack of money before the police had caught up with him, but he can't remember the spot.

The film is enhanced by some funny drawings by Rocky that come to life, expressing his thoughts or commenting on a character or the action. How Boy comes to terms with the father of his dreams and the reality of the loser who sometimes abuses him is both funny and poignant at times. The fate of the money is especially a delight. The film shows the Americanization of other cultures, but not in a judgmental way so much as suggesting that no national or cultural boundary is impervious in today's world. (Alamein himself is taken by the title of the novel Shogun.) Best of all, the film demonstrates the resiliency and imagination of children, helping them to survive when reality fails to live up to their dreams.

Separation (Rated PG-13)

Nader and Simin are separated by more than a wall.
(c) 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

Asghar Farhadi's film might come as a revelation at a time when some are beating the war drums in an attempt to move us to go to war against Iran because we fear their nuclear program. The winner of the "Best Foreign Film" Oscar, this domestic strife story avoids all politics, except for the reason that wife and mother  Simin decides to leave, and then divorce, her husband. She wants to emigrate from Iran because she hopes to give her daughter Termeh opportunities which the male-dominated Iran prevents women from enjoying. I suspect that that was as far as he felt he could go for social commentary if he wanted to see his film shown beyond his own country.

Nader, the husband and father, refuses because he is the sole caregiver of his Alzheimer-afflicted father, now in need of watching every single minute. When Simin leaves home, Termeh chooses to stay with her father because she believes that this will bring back her mother: she knows that if she accompanies her mother, Simin will take them out of the country, thus depriving her of the father whom she loves in equal measure. When Nader hires a woman to watch his father while he is at work, he unleashes a chain of sad events that brings anguish and heartache to everyone, the film ending on a note that will puzzle and upset those who like everything in their films to be tied up neatly by the end.

The glimpses of Iranian society show a world in which people are neither fearful of their government nor rebelling against it, but simply trying to get on with their everyday lives. Simin and Nader are as secular as most Americans, whereas the family of the caretaker are devout Muslims. The court scenes are intriguing because the system seems to abide by secular rather than Sharia law.

Both films  are confined to the art house circuit, but their release on DVD should make them available to a wider audience.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's Been a Very Titanic Anniversary Week

What a week it's been for those engrossed with all things Titanic, with the re-release of James Cameron's blockbuster, plus TCM's airing of the 1958 film A Night to Remember, ABC Television's mini-series Titanic, and the History Channel's documentary on the salvaging of artifacts from the sunken ship. I didn't see it, but someone told me that The Unsinkable Molly Brown also was shown on a cable channel. Quite a fitting way to observe the 100th Anniversary of this terrible marine tragedy!

The Titanic 3-D
Rated PG-13.  Running time: 3 hours 14 min.

The 3-D is well done, but the main reason for laying aside your DVD version of James Cameron's film and venturing out to the theater is the opportunity for seeing the incredible special effect scenes on a big screen, especially if there is an Imax theater near you. The overworked "Awesome" is appropriate for this. No doubt credit for this film's enormous success is due to James Cameron's successfully melding a classic love story, so ably depicted by  Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, with a spectacular disaster.
The first two hours consist of the despairing rich Grace bonding with the free-spirited Jack who dares to hope that they are meant for each other. Thus, though we see many touching scenes of the other passengers plight during the last third of the film, it is their fate which holds our attention. Cameron focuses so narrowly on the lovers that he does not include nearly as many details as the 1958 film A Night to Remember, possibly because he thought they might be distracting. For example, the film never mentions the ship which was just ten miles away and failed to come to their aid
Although the re-release of Titanic did not capture first place at the box office (as did Disney' Lion King, it has done well, coming in No. 4 on its opening weekend. It is worth visiting again: even though I knew the plot well, the scene of his entrapment below deck while the water rose in the room was still suspenseful.

On DVD: A Night to Remember 
Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.

Based on Walter Lord's carefully researched book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, this film adds very little fictional element in its straightforward account of the events. Much of the story is told from the standpoint of 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who after seeing to the lowering of the other life boats, took charge of those who managed to stay atop the upside down collapsible lifeboat.
This film gives a more comprehensive view of the terrible night in that considerable screen time is given to twoother ships, one that did rush to the rescue of the Titanic's stricken passengers and crew, and one which did not. By a terrible irony it was the one closest, The Californian,  just ten miles away, that looked on and did nothing, even as the crew watched numerous rockets being fired as distress signals. Also, the ship's radioman closed down his wireless and did not bother to co back and check it, despite the rocket signals. On the other hand the Carpathian sped at full speed when they received the call for help via wireless, but unfortunately was 4 hours away. They took in the life boat survivors, but everyone in the ice-cold waters had died.
All the Titanic films show the various ways that people faced death--from panic to calm acceptance--and this one shows a priest reciting a prayer and quoting from the Book of Revelation as several dozen people kneel around him, the little group like an island of tranquility as others scream and rush around them. Another beautiful depiction is the band which played music almost right up to the last minute, their last tune being the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee." In this version it is the British tune used, whereas in James Cameron's film it is "Bethany," the tune familiar to Americans.

On ABC Television: TITANIC
Not Rated.  Running time:  c. 3 1/2 hours

This excellent recreation of the story also includes fictional characters as well as historical ones. Although the other versions show the strict class distinctions of society in 1912, this version  emphasizes class barriers more through the story of a snobbish British women. We follow the fortunes and misfortunes of major characters in First and Second Class and in Steerage. It was no accident that far fewer of the steerage women and children survived than did those in the upper class section, the crew refusing to unlock the gates that kept the poor in their place until the well off had been loaded into the lifeboats.
Through flashbacks the film also underlines the thoughtless hubris of the White Star Line executives during the building of the ship. They rush the construction so that one person expresses his misgivings that they are using iron bolts rather than steel ones, purchased from companies that they have not vetted. And of course, as in the other films, there is concern, voiced by ship designer Thomas Andrews, over the low number of life boats. As we have saw in the other versions, this concern is swept aside because more boats would make the promenade too crowded for the first class passengers.
You can see all four parts of the series at this site: . They are not commercial free, but there are fewer than when originally broadcast--and there are also several short "Making of" features.

And by the way, if you are hungry for more films based on the disaster, there is the 1953 film Titanic starring Barbara Stanwick and Clifton Web as estranged parents on board the ship who are battling for custody of their son and daughter. There is even a 1953 German film of the same name that Goebbels made to discredit the British and Jews.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.

(c) 2012 Roadside Attractions

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Mark 8:38

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Romans 1:16

He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Matthew 22:37

Director Steve Taylor's film, based on the collection of essays and memoir by Don Miller that was on the New York Times' bestseller list, raises the bar for faith-based films--and also has stirred up controversy among believers and nonbelievers. This latter is a good thing for the film in that it might lead more people to go see it for themselves. As I watched it recently via a Live Streaming screening set up for film critics and reviewers, I found my initial skepticismconcerning the film  melting away due to the well crafted script (by Taylor, Ben Pearson, joined by Don Miller himself) and excellent performances by the actors.

According to those who have read the book (I haven't), the story is a very fictionalized account of a young man's spiritual journey from a closed belief system to skeptic denial and back to a spiritual belief that is open and affirming. Don (Marshall Allman) is a 19 year-old enrolled in a Baptist junior college and active as an assistant leader in the junior high fellowship of his Southern Baptist Church in Texas. When a case of blatant hypocrisy involves his divorced mother (Jenny Littleton), he accepts his free thinking father's proposition to enroll at ultra-liberal  Reed College in Portland Oregon. The skeptic had been working on his son, telling him in one scene that the boy was smart, "A brain like that shouldn't be wasted at church."

Climbing into his beat up old car, the young man seeks to escape from both his family and his church. At Reed Don at first is like a fish out of water. Girls freely use the men's bathroom, drinking and swearing are rampant, the professors encourage students to question everything, and lesbian student Lauryn (Tania Raymonde) warns him that if he is a Christian, he better stay in the closet.

Don soon finds that he has little faith to keep under wraps, the young man being swept away by the confident skepticism of his peers who love to mock the faith. The stand out of the latter is the student known only as the Pope (Justin Welborn), who almost always is wearing arobe and pontifical hat. Needless to say, this is a character whom Catholic viewers will have trouble relating to until the greatly moving climatic scene of the film. Don himself becomes a campus celebrity after he and some other students are arrested for defacing a billboard advertising a bottled water product despised by the students because its expensive contents can be obtained free at a water faucet.

During this middle period of the film when he has rejected his old faith his spirit seems to be sustained by the love for jazz inherited from his father and fed by his listening to a recoringd of John Coltrain. The boy has embraced his father's statement that "Jazz is like life because it doesn't resolve." Don hismelf refuses to resolve his anger toward his mother, ignoring her frequent  phone calls. At a so-called civil disobedience demonstration at a large bookstore Don becomes even more attracted to the cute student activist Penny (Claire Holt) whom he had observed around campus. He joins in such hi jinx as placing a huge plastic phallis symbol over the tall tower of a local church. However, his pride in his accomplishment is deflated somewhat when Penny, hurt by the action, reveals that she is a believer who attends that church. His confrontation with Penny is the beginning of Don's re-evaluation of his beliefs and behavior, though there are plenty of bumps in the road for him yet.

The film has flaws, such as what seemed at times some stereotyping of both fundamentalists and liberals, and the scene of the students dressed as robots and computers protesting at Books, Ink seemed far too much over the top to be believable. Conservative Christians will have problems with the language and alcohol/drug depiction--and also, as I learned during the online chat exchange following our screening, with the film's raising some of the failings of the church acknowledged in the film. One critic kept complaining of this, even stating that this showed a "hatred" toward Christianity--as if frankly admiting that the Crusaders killing thousands of women and children, as well as combatants, was evidence of a vendetta against the Church by the filmmakers.

I thought that the wild campus-wide party at he end of the film was too far out until I read about Reed College and that the Renn Fayre, staged by seniors at the end of the academic year, actually takes place, with its bizarre events of drinking, eating, and more by costumed students dating back to a Renaissance Fayre decades earlier. It is at this that the climatic scene featuring the old Pope passing on his post to the new one brings the film to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion, one that like jazz, is not quite resolved.

As a depiction of a faith that is large enough for doubt and that admits that it does not have all the answers to the mysteries of life, Doin's father's analogy is a good one, even though he in his dogmatic skepticism would not grasp this. I especially appreciated the film because the arc of Don's spiritual journey is a little similar to my journey. Mine wasn't nearly as exrteme, but it began in a fundamentalist church (one which taught that one must be baptized in "living water," a river, not in an indoors" bathtub"), from which during my junior high years I drifted away due to a couple of spiritual crises. Then during my high school years the direction was reversed when I discovered that in the Methodist Chrurch one did nt have to "check your brains at the door."

 This provocative film would be a good one for a youth group to watch and discuss about the nature of faith and doubt, but the leader should see it first and be sure to alert parents to the elements that almost resulted in the film being given an R rating.

A version of this review with 12 multi-part questions is available forVisual Parables subscribers at

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games

Note: the following contains some plot revelations necessary so if you have not read the novel or seen the film, beware--you might want to wait till you have.
Rated PG-13. Our Ratings: V -5; L -2; S/N -1.

No shrinking violet, this heroine!
© 2012 Lionsgate Films
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:3-4

The premise of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is a bit chilling--kids killing kids until only one survives--and a few years ago it was even regarded as repugnant. There was quite a furor over the ultra-violent Japanese film Battle Royale when it was released in 2001, so much so that it was not circulated in the USA. Set in the near future when youth are revolting and committing criminal acts, the Japanese government reacts to the violent youth rebellion by passing a law that each year one high school class of students will be taken to an island and forced to fight each other until only one is left--and if they do not kill, the explosive charge in the neckring each must wear will be detonated. Jump to 2012 and note the sea change in the public acceptance of this premise! The film version of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular novel The Hunger Games becomes a smashing success from the very start of its 12:01 A.M opening, with millions of young people either skipping school on Friday or else drowsily going through the motions in class. (I have even heard of one person who saw the movie twice within the first 12 hours of its showing! Nor were the viewers just young, many older adults also having embraced the novel.)
The enthusiastic reaction of the audience at the advance screening that I attended left no doubt that director Gary Ross' film will match the success of the novel. He and his co-writers Suzanne Collins herself and veteran screenwriter Billy Ray carefully pruned away parts of the book, an operation required for a two hour movie (actually 2 hours 22 minutes). For instance, Madge, the Mayor's daughter who gave the heroine the mockingjay pin she wears is cut, but despite such omissions, the film presents well the essence of the novel. The major change made in the screen version is the change of voice, the filmmakers opting for an omniscient camera view rather than the book's first person narration by Katniss. Also we see far more cutaways from the two main characters to scenes of President Snow, the Head Gamekeeper (Wes Bently) and others back in the Capitol: their remarks fill in the information necessary to understand the predicament of a character or her action, information that Katniss supplies in the book's first person narrative. Also, techies will love the NASA-like control room where the Gamekeepers keep track of each player and comjure up deadly threats, such as a forest fire and fireballs, to enliven the action, something the book does not really describe.
For the few in the audience who have not read the book the film is prefaced by a few lines from "The Treaty of Treason" informing viewers that in the future the nation of Panem emerged from the ruins of the old nations of North America. Panem is divided into 12 Districts with the Capitol (apparently situated in the Rocky Mountains) taking in the majority of the produce of the Districts. As the penalty for a past revolt each district is required to hold an annual lottery to select a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 16 as tributes. Thus 24 youth are sent to the Capitol where they are primped and pampered for four days and then set down in a huge arena where they are to fight and kill each other until just one is left. By means of what must be thousands of hidden cameras the combat is televised throughout Panem, with everyone required to watch.
The impoverished residents of the Districts watch the Games with apprehension based on their concern for their own tributes, whereas the bewigged and effete residents of the Capitol, seeming to be a throwback to the audiences at the Roman gladiatorial games. No doubt this is intentional, the country's name being Panem, from the Latin word for bread--remember the Roman Emperors' scheme of keeping the masses of Rome content by their policy of "Bread and Circuses"? Thus the thrill hungry Capitolonians delightedly watch the odds posted by each tribute's name so they can place bets on a tribute. Some of the wealthier spectators even join together as sponsors to send a much needed item to their favorite tribute via a silver parachute guided to the recipient (each participitant is easily traceble by a tracking device injected into an arm at the beginning of the Games).
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a character somewhat similar to the tough Ozarks Mountain girl she portrayed in Winter's Bone. Katniss lives with her 12 year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) and their mother in District 12, obviously our Appalachia, as we can tell by the too-familiar shacks and line of men wearing hardhats on their way to a coal mine. Ever since her father died in a mine explosion, sending her mother into an almost catatonic state of despair, Katniss has been the provider of food for her family. She and her male friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), also about her age, 16, sneak through the electric fence surrounding their village almost every day in the search for edible roots, berries, and game in the nearby forest. In the process Katniss has become adept with the bow and arrow and at setting snares for small game. (The book does better in portraying the terrible hunger that assaults the citizens of District 12, leading to starvation for some, and a desparate scramble for food by Katniss and Gale. Neither of the actors look very thin or gaunt in this opening section of the film.)
Then comes the day of the Lottery and it is Prim, not Katniss or any of the other more mature girls, whose name is drawn. The older sister rushes after the guards escorting Prim to the podium as she yells that she will volunteer to take her place. She is accepted, and the drawing for the male volunteer results in the baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) being selected. In a later flashback we learn of his kindness. He once tossed Katniss a loaf of bread when she had sat crying in the rain because neither hunting nor begging had garnered any food that day. Their Games mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a victor in the Games many years before, is on the stage, but in the film he is not quite as buffoonish--he does drink too much and looks unkempt, but he does not drunkenly fall off the stage. We also see a little more of him in the film version, as when the kids are in the arena and he approaches some Capitol denizens seeking their sponsorship for Katniss so that she will receive some medicine she badly needs.
To save space I will skip over the interesting section in which the pair are transported to the Capitol and prepared for the arena, the intent of which was to make all of the tributes telegenic--The Hunger Games is the ultimate Reality TV show. Unlike Battle Royale, in which the forced killing is suposedly done to control youth back home, the killing in The Hunger Games is for the amusement of the population, plus a means of displaying the Capitol's control over the 12 Distritcs. The Arena, in a way a dystopia within a dystopia, is a vast area with forests, a lake, streams and mountains that is under the total control of the Game Master and his large corps of technicians who keep watch over each tribute through the tracking device and the myriad of cameras that apparently are hidden everywhere.
Each of the tributes is raised from beneath groundlevel and stands on a small platform until the signal is given for the Games to begin. (They have been warned that if they try to step off even a second too early, they will detonate a landmine!) They form a large semi-circle around a big metal Cornucopia that is filled with provisions. All kinds of packs of food and tools, even an archery set, lie before them. However, Haymitch has strictly told them not to run to the Cornucopia because the strong tributes, some of whom have actually been training for the Games all their young lives, will turn that area into a killing field. At the signal Katniss, overcoming her urge to run to the distant bow and quiver of arrows, grabs a backpack and runs into the forest. The field behind her does indeed become a blood-soaked meadow littered with bodies as, during the rush for the coveted goods, the strong crush the weak. A canon booms for each death, and an image of the dead child is projected high up over the arena.
How Katniss slowly is transformed from victim into victor is well told, with Peeta playing an important part in her development. Both the book and film are good in bringing out the humanity of the two. Back in the Capitol when they talked one night on a rooftop, he tells her, "I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me. " (For a fuller version of his desire to be "more than a piece in their game" see pp. 141-142 in the novel.) I think Katniss begins to understand this more when she forges an all too brief alliance with Rue, the young girl from District 11 who had helped her elude a band of tributes that cornered her up a tree. During this sequence friendship takes the place of survival in the heart of Katniss. She tries to put completely out of her mind the thought that there would come the moment when she would have to kill the younger girl whi is now a trusted and trusting companion.
In the film version this sequence ends too quickly, with Katniss hurrying back from a mission to their rendezvous point. She has heard Rue's cry, but she arrives too late, one of the male tributes having thrust his spear into the girl's abdomine. (Katniss scores her first kill, sending an arrow into the neck of the boy.) Then while Rue is dying, Katniss not only stays with her to sing a song as she had requested, but also gathers wild flowers to place on Rue's body as a token of love and respect, something that the people watching on their screens back in District 11 appreciate. (The film at this point adds to the novel by inserting a fairly long scene of Rue's grieving father in District 11 attacking a soldier, this triggering hundreds of others into fighting against the occupying troops. Was this inserted to set us up for the sequel? I wish that the filmmakers instead had used this time to include the scene from the novel in which the citizens of District 11 send a loaf of their bread to Katniss as a token of their appreciation for what she had done for Rue.)
In the book sequence chronicling the friendship between the two girls I had hoped that Suzanne Collins was heading toward an ending in which Rue, Katniss, and Peeta would sit down in front of the Cornucopia and refuse to fight each other. This would be a powerful way to follow up on Peeta's thoughts (repeated on pp.236-237 when, following Rue's death, Katniss recalls them). This saying "No" to the Games' rule that the victor must kill all opponents would be in the spirit of the peacemakers profiled in Daniel L. Buttry's ReadtheSpirit's book Blessed Are the Peacemakers (see the review in this issue). The three would be like the early Christian martyrs tossed into the Roman Colliseum but who refused to pick up a weapon to defend themselves. For those martyrs this willingness to be killed rather than to kill was their way of showing that Caesar could not, in Peeta's words, "change me in there. Turn me into some kind of a monster that I am not." (p. 141)
In case you are thinking that there would have been no sequels if the book had ended with Rue, Katniss, and Peeta's martyrdom, I would contend that they might not have been executed. The audience had already been made to root for the District 12 pair by their handlers' promoting them as star crossed lovers. Thus they already held the attention and the sympathy of viewers, including those of the Capitol. By including the elfin Rue in their pact not to kill, they would have projected to the audience a love transcending that of boy-girl, a selfless love that sometimes can persuade an enemy to change, as Blessed Are The Peacemakers shows in some of its mini-biographies (among whom are Gandhi and Martin Luther King, J.). But even if they had died, the sequels would still be possible, because there is Prim and Gale back in District 12. Inspired by the trio's courageous example, in time they might have launched a non-violent resistance against the Capitol, one unique in such tales of dystopia and revolt. (Well, not quite unique, as there is the 1951 classic science fiction story by Eric Frank Russell "And Then Were None" about a Gandhian society resisting occupation by a Terran Empire force. You can read the story at: )
But Ms. Collins ventured just a little way in that direction when she had Katniss make her suggestion to Peeta in front of the Corucopia. Their Romeo and Juliette-like act of resistance is a clever and emtionally satisfying denoument, maybe not as profound as the one I would have liked, but then Ms. Collins wrote a book to entertain, not to be a peacemaking tract. The movie version of her dystopian tale is one of the best science fiction films to be released in a long time, well deserving to join the company of WALL-E and the excellent films described in Part 1 and below.
This review with 18 discussion questions is available to Visual Parables subscribers at

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Dystopia" in The Lorax and Other Sci-Fi Films: Part 1

In Thneed-Vill nothing grows because of human greed--all plants are plastic.

Although both the book and the film version of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax are intended for children, the city of Thneed-Ville in them is a dystopia almost as grim as those found in adult tales, even though it is a colorful place. However, the colors are all artificial, even the trees, flowers and and lawns made from plastic. No living plant grows in the city because they were destroyed by a greedy inustrialist!

Both the story's environmental message and its concept of a dystopia show how respectful Theodore Geisel was of children and their budding intellectual ability. As I watched this pleasing adaptation unfold on the big screen, images of other dystopias crowded into my mind, some of which I think might be interesting to you too. Why? Because writers/filmmakers use the concept of dystopia as a means of warning their audiences of something in society, some trend or set of values, that is dangerous. A dystopia story is thus a cautionary tale designed to forestall a perceived calamity if a current trend or policy in society is allowed to go on to its logical conclusion.

1984. George Orwell in 1948 foresaw that in the Cold War struggle both sides were using tactics that would lead to the loss of freedom of thought and action if allowed to go on unchecked. The Soviets had gone down the path of totalitarianism further than the West, but he saw in the mounting use of secrecy, spying, lieing, and debasing of language that the US and British governments were engaged in that the two opponents might eventually be indistinguishable. remember, this was the beginning in the USA of the Communist witch hunts that lead to so many liberals being blacklisted. There were two excellent films based on the novel, one black and white version in 1956, and another, in color in the actual year of 1984, and with a distinguished cast that included Richard Burton and John Hurt. Then, and now, history was different from what Orwell predicted, but his "Big Brother" remains in our lexicon--and a threat as government continues to increase its power. (I should also mention here the 1954 animated version of his fable Animal Farm exploring the same themes, with it's memorable Double Speak quote, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.")

Fahrenheit 451. The censuring of what we read has been around since the days of the Inquisition, nor did it go away when the Enlightenment came along. Ray Bradbury was concerned about this issue when he wrote his novel, naming it after the temperature at which book paper ignites into flame. In his dystopia the State, in its controlling of what people think, has banned all books and libraries. The job of the Fire Department is to start a fire (of any book they come across), not to put it out. The conclusion, in which the two protagonists discover an underground of literate resisters who preserve the heritage of civilization by each member memorizing a specific book, is gratifying.

Logan's Run. In 1976, ten years after the Bradbury film, the movie adaptation of William F. Nolan's novel addressed the youth craze that began with the genration gap of the Sixties, as well as the issue of environmentalism. Through the misuse of science the outside world had been ruined, but citizens had found refuge in a domed city wher all physical needs were met, allowing people leisure to pursue their own pleasures. The one catch, however, is that, to relieve the pressures of population, the lifespan stops at 30, on which birthday the citizen is terminated in a public semi-religious ceremony called Carousel. Our hero Logan is a Sandman, a policeman charged with catching Runners, those who try to escape their termination because they do not beleive the claim that the terminated are being transported to a better world.

Lord of the Flies.  William Golding wrote his book to refute the shallow liberal view that if only the innocent children of the world could run it, things would be so much better. There have been two film versions of this tale of boys castaway on an island when their plane goes down and the adults are killed in the crash. Peter Brooks directed the 1963 black and white version, and in 1990 it was remade in color. The boys set out as good civilized Englishmen to make the best of their situation, but soon the rational boys are overcome by those led by a bully acting out of fear and lust for power. Neither version fully captured the inner torment of the rational Piggy, especially of the surreal scene in which he hears the Lord of the Flies taunting him, but still the films are worth watching, serving as a reminder that there is that of the savage or darkness within all of us. In the story the lovely island is reduced to a fiery hell on earth before the boys are rescued and returned to a society that also is engaged in a larger war.

In Time. Just out last year, this film is the kind that a group of talented Occupy Wall Street folks might have created if they wanted to spread their message of addressing the inequities of our society. In the future humanity has been gentically engineered to stop aging at 25 years, but then to live for just one more year unless they can acquire more time, time now being the ultimate currency for all transactions. A digital clock has been imbedded on everyone's wrist, and when the digets counts down to "0," the person dies unless new time has been acquired by transactions, begging, or stealing. The wealthy live in a special section where immortality is a possibility, whereas others live in a series of time zones made dangerous by desperate people seeking more time. When our worker hero is given another hundred years by a wealthy man whose life he has saved, he begins a series of acts that lead to a rebellion against the unjust system.

WALL-E. Like The Lorax, this is more than just an animated film for children, infused with a profound message and warning, like all good cautionary tales. The little robot that lends its name to the film's title  continues to function as he was built to do long before the Earth was reduced to a wasteland by humanity's pollution--gathering and compacting  waste products. Then, through his linking up with a reconnaisance robot named EVE, he and his new companion inadvertantly set out on a mission in which he reconnects with humans and triggers a sequence of actions that will set them free. Humanity has fled the ravaged earth in a huge spaceship that at first seems like a utopia. However, it is a world in which no one walks, humans being so well served by machines that they have grown fat, riding around on chairs when they want to go somewhere, and never having to work for their food because it is prepared and brought to them by robots. Mrs. Obama might well adopt this section of the film as part of her campaign against obesity and for healthful eating.*

The above are but a few of the many dystopia films that talented writers and filmmakers have created over the years. No doubt the dystopia film that is currently on everyone's mind is The Hunger Games, a tale in which annually a teenaged boy and girl  are chosen from the twelve districts of earth to fight each other to death on live television. (Talk about extreme sports, which brings to mind such sci-fi films as Rollerball, The Running Man and Death Race.) We will begin Part 2 next week with a review of this film, along with brief examinations of other dystopia films such as THX 1138, The Book of Eli
A Clockwork Orange
, and more. The dystopia tale is a genre in iteself, one in which the writers and filmmakers serve as prophets crying in the wilderness, warning us with their "Beware!" Although they vary in quality, even the worst of them can trigger thought and discussion about a societal problem that needs attention.

*This portion of WALL-E was no doubt inspired by Jack William's classic 1947 novella "With Folded Hands" about the unintended consequences of labor saving machines. The robots, created to serve humanity, now force everyone to sit back with folded hands while they meet their every need.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax

 Rated PG. Our ratings: V -2; L -1; S/N -3 . Running time: 1 hour

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image,
     make them     reflecting our nature
So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
   the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself,
   and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
God created human beings;
   he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature.
   He created them male and female.
God blessed them:
   “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
    for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
                           Genesis 1:26-28, The Message

“Speak up for the people who have no voice,
     for the rights of all the down-and-outers.
Speak out for justice!
    Stand up for the poor and destitute!”
  Proverbs 31:8-9

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”   
Dr. Seuss , The Lorax

This fourth feature adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book drew in more box office receipts than all others on the  weekend that it opened. It is easy to see why with its animation, whimsical dialogue, and songs based on  the original text, plus an an environmental message aimed at children. The film understandably has been attacked by the usual conservative crowd opposed to environmentalism (too much anti-business sentiment here), but even many liberal critics have scorned it, some of the reasons for which we will examine later.

 The film follows the book in that the story of how Thneed-Ville, a plasticized city where no living tree or blade of grass grows, came into being, as told by an elderly man named Once-ler. To lengthen the original the filmmakers have added the story of 12-year old Ted (voice of Zac Efron) who fancies the slightly older teenaged Audrey (Taylor Swift). When he hears her declare that she would marry the one who brought her a live Truffula tree, he decides to set forth on his monobike to find one. This means going outside the huge city walls that separete the brightly colored city streets and homes from the desolate countryside, even though it is against the law to do so.

Ted at last discovers the tall home of the hermit Once-ler (Ed Helms), who, despite wanting to be left alone, at last gives in to Ted’s persistence and begins to tell him his story. He breaks off, telling his visitor to come back again to hear more. Meanwhile the spy cameras hidden all around the city have revealed Ted’s venturing forth beyond  Thneed-Ville, so when Mr. O’Hare (Rob Riggle), the tyrannical mayor, and also head of  the factory that sells bottled air to the citizens, calls the boy to his office, he orders him not to leave the city again.

However, encouraged by his feisty grandmother (Betty White), who remembers a time when trees grew everywhere, Ted does visit Once-ler again, learning that the storyteller himself was responsible for the city’s plight. Years before, he  had set forth on his mule-drawn cart to make his fortune in the world and found the land where Truffula trees grew in abundance. Growing atop tall palm tree-like trunks was an orange, yellow or pink tuft made up of silky fibres. When Ted chopped down the first tree, the air and earth shook, and a shaft of light descended from the sky. We expect this to herald a mighty being, but instead it is a creature as small as Yoda—the Lorax (Danny DiVito) who appears, proclaiming himself the protector of the land.

At his entreaty Ted at first agrees not to chop down any more trees. However, he has made something that he dubs a thneed. At first he had not been able to sell it, but upon persisting, he had persauded  a woman to see its attractiveness as a hat. Others followed, it becoming a garment and a host of other usefu things.  When the would-be customers  rush to him, thrusting their money upon him, he gives in. The old way of harvesting the Truffula is too slow to keep up with the tremandous demand for his thneeds. It is quicker to chop them down. And thus begins the process that leads to their extinction, the city and countryside losing all its vegetation and becoming an artificial, plastic place, Once-ler , going broke, retired to live the life of a hermit, and a former worker name O' Hare rose to power, growing richer and richer. The film ends with Ted, Audry, and Grandmother, given by Once-ler the last Truffula seed, in revolt against O’ Hare and his brawny goons.

 Most of Theodore Seuss Geisel’s books are so short that the 22 minute length of a TV half hour show is the appropriate medium for his works. Such was the case with the wonderful 1966 adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a classic animated fable that always remains fresh, no matter how many times you return to it. Such was not the case with Ron Howard’s attempt in 2000 to transfer the short story to a feature length film, the result being a bloated mess that was a mockery of the very message of simplicity and non-commercialization of Christmas intended by its author. I was afraid that this might be the case with this one, but found that this time the addition of Ted and Audrey’s story did not spoil the original. This section’s many chase scenes will delight younger viewers, but do not, I believe, over-ride the message of what is a wonderful cautionary tale.

One reason who some have turned against the film is due to the studios’ (Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures) commercializing of the film, and thus diluting its anti-corporate and environmentalist message (one company produces disposable diapers! See for more on this leasing of movie-tie-in rights). However, few viewers will be aware of this, nor should the film be scorned because its sponsors have misused it.

 A more apt criticism is the use of 3-D, and especially Imax 3-D: the simple story does not require this, and perhaps is almost overpowered by this gimickry merely because the studios wanted to be able to charge the premium price for tickets. My advice is to see it in in its flat version. I did enjoy it on Imax 3-D, but this is entirely unnecessary to enjoy the film—and removes any possibility of the message being lost, a message that is cleverly woven into both narrative and song, the climax swelling with the anthem-like “Let It Grow.” I should also add that there is more than just an environmental message in the film. Children should be able to pick this up, as several times throughout the film we see the inscription on one of the stones marking the spot where the Lorax exited the earth, “Unless.”

This makes an excellent complement to the phrase in the above Genesis passage “ be responsible,” Eugene  H. Peterson’s better translation of the Hebrew of the Creation Story text than the RSV’s “dominion.” Some have said to watch the far better Wall-E rather than go see this one, but I believe there is room for both.

For Reflection/DiscussionNote: The following questions obviously are for adults or youth, this being a “children’s film” that can provide older viewers plenty of themes to ponder and discuss. Those working with children--parents, grandparents, teachers and care givers, Christian educators, and pastors (those giving “children’s sermons,” too often overly didactic and patronizing)--should ignore the first question and rephrase the others. And above all, use a Socratic rather than a pedantic method, thus assisting the children to discover for themselves meaning as they are led to think about a particular scene, exchange of dialogue, or song. Time after time I have been delighted at the insights children come up, sometimes new insights that I had failed to see.

1. What do you think of the addition to Dr. Seuss’ book? Do you think it makes the story more understandable, or, for children, more exciting? And is this a good thing?
2. What is Ted like when we first meet him? What sets him off on his quest? What quality sees him through the many obstacles he encounters: in the town and at the hermit’s unwelcoming abode? How does Ted change as the movie unfolds? In other words, what was his motive for setting out on his quest, and what was it when he was given the seed?
3. What was Once-ler like when he first met the Lorax? How does the movie make the chopping down of the Truffala tree an act of sacrilege, and the appearance of the Lorax as a religious experience?
4. What did you think of the Lorax when he first appeared? Maybe like Luke Skywalker did when he first met Yoda? How does this guardian of the land defend it? Not with might or power, does he? To what in Ted does he appeal ? Compare this to the way in which Gandhi and his satyagraha followers resisted their enemy as they sought the independance of India.
5. When the Lorax had rocks placed around the tree stump, what did the result look like--a memorial? How did the music contribute to the effect? How did this seem like a religious or spiritual act?
6. How does this method of “guarding” the land relate to the word we see several times in the film, “Unless”? Instead of an outer coercive force, how does it become an inner one? How is this far more powerful than an outer one, such as laws and penalties, fences and guards?
7. What connection do you see between this film, especially its word “Unless,” and the Genesis Creation Story? What word do you find in most translations for humankind’s care for, or as in The Message, “responsible for,” the earth and its creatures? How did the traditional translation of the Hebrew word lead to our misuse of the earth and its resources? How do we see this misuse in Dr. Seuss’ book and film?
8. What did you make of the Lorax’s words to Once-ler, “Which way do trees fall?” The reply, “Down?”  The Lorax, “The way it leans. Be careful which way you lean.” How was this both a warning and a prophecy? Which “way” was Once-ler leaning? Toward greed, prophet, exploitation? Which way does his, and ours, culture tend to point us? Think back over your own life and examine which way you have been “leaning.” How has this leaning changed at times, and if it did, what were the influences?
9. Listen carefully to the words of the songs, and note how Ted begins to justify his denuding of the area. How do we justify this today—such as in leveling mountains to get at coal, drilling in wildlife preserves, cutting down the forests in Brazil, or —? Name some other current practices that threaten the environment. For a video of the song “Let It Grow” go to:
10. What do you think of O’Hare’s selling bottled air? Far fetched? What do you think of the statement by one of his sycophants, “If you put it in a plastic bottle, people will buy it.” Thirty years ago would you have thought people would by bottled water in such quantity?
11. Compare Thneed-Ville to other dystopias in films: Blade Runner; Children of Men; Logan’s Run; 1984; Pleasantville; WALL-E. Though the details are different, what do they have in common? Which ones end on a hopeful note?
12. Some have criticized the original book as being too simplistic and too anti-corporate by not showing that there can be other solutions than totally refusing to use the resources of the earth. What do you think? How have lumber companies dealt with forests in the past, and how are some of them treating forests under their control now? Do you think there can be a win/win for both sides now? Compare this film with the situation in which an environmentalist and an oil company CEO comfront one another in Big Miracle.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Meet Coach Bill Courtney, Subject of the Film UNDEFEATED

 I recorded this on Wednesday, February 29, 2012. Note that at various points some explanatory notes are enclosed in parentheses. To see my review of The Undefeated scroll down the page.

CC: Hi Ed, how are you?
Ed: Fine, fine. Do you prefer to be called "Coach," or "Mr."?
CC: Call me whatever you want.
Ed: Well, I will always think of you as Coach Courtney, so I will call you that. First of all, thanks for taking the must be like a marathon for you today (there being so many interviews).
CC: Oh it is, it's crazy, I think I need to join a union or something down here.
Ed: I want to congratulate you for not only the film's winning an Oscar, but also for you being the Person of the Week on ABC (this was on Friday Feb. 24).
CC: I, I honestly had no idea that that was happening when I did that interview. I just thought it was another interview. I didn't even see it.
Ed: Oh, well I hope you can get a video of it. One of the things I was curious about as I watched the video (screener) of your film was how did you first become involved with volunteering.
CC: A fellow that works with me named Jim in Sunday School class had some men that were going out and doing some mentoring work in inner city schools, and he was doing it at Manassus. I taught school and coached football for a living before I got out into the private world, and Jim told them about me. I went over to spring practice to help out for a couple of weeks--that turned into six years.
Ed: That's great! Another question I have is "How during those kind of lean years--what sustained you during that period?
CC: What sustained me?- It was the kids. They inspired me! I mean, they come from abject poverty. They come from an area that you're more likely to be incarcerated than go to college. They're surrounded by gangs. Most of the industry has left, which leaves people without much resource or hope for a job. And despite it, they welcomed me into their lives. And they listened, and they yearned for discipline and commitment, and they just wanted to be part of something good and exciting and successful. We started with 17 kids my first year on that football team, and ended up with 70 five years later because they were just grappling on to what we were doing--and what kept me coming back, and what sustained me was how inspirational those kids were.
Ed: That's great. Obviously you must have inspired them because I was really impressed by the way in which Chavis took your very strong criticism and all (during practice the boy had been in a fight), so they must have respected you a good deal.
CC: Well, I think here is this thing--if you talk about commitment and discipline and character and all that stuff, but then you kind of walk a different life, I think it just sounds like noise to them, and they don't respect you. They'll sit down and shake their heads, and say "Yes sir," because that's what you do in the practice, but it won't mean anything to them. The flip side is, you know, if you surround yourself with a bunch of other good coaches (in the film we see a number of other volunteers assisted Coach Courtney in a number of ways) who are like-minded men who see theses kids as souls, and these kids then get surrounded by people who do talk about character and commitment and discipline, but also are consistent in their every day form, then they start getting it. And I don't really necessarily think that I was, you know, inspirational to them, I just think I was consistent. And I think I was something they could look at that was different from whet their surroundings were, and it gave them a different glimpse at what life could be, if you adhere to some principles beyond what you might see in every day life.
Ed: I was impressed, too--I am a pastor as well as a film critic--with your prayer with the kids that was included (in the film). You didn't try to assume, or bargain to get God on your side.
CC: No, I mean I'm not sure if God is a football fan or not. Since the Bible doesn't really tell us whether or not He likes football, I didn't think it was appropriate to invite Him to the game. I figured He'd come if He wanted to, but what I wanted the Lord to bless us with was perseverance and selflessness and, and character, and discipline. I pretty much figured that if the kids were blessed with that, the football would take care of itself.
Ed: Sure, and certainly that prayer was answered
CC: Well, yeah, I mean, you know, it is answered when you see these kids go to college. It is answered when you see them kinda tagged , you know, with what the world hits them in the mouth with, and look, I'm a failed guy, I do not, I do not even remotely expect to be thought of as a moral authority on anything. All I know is that these kids are good kids who grew up in a difficult area of the world, and we re willing to buy into some notions beyond what normally they might not have been, might not have subscribed to, and the Lord works in mysterious ways, and we found ourselves together for six years, and it was a blessing that will enrich my life forever.
Ed: And a lot of other lives, too. I do want to ask how you felt at the Oscars, but before I do that, if it's not too intrusive--my readers will be interested--do you belong to a church or whatever?
CC: I am a Presbyterian, and I belong to Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis.
Ed: I'm a Presbyterian myself.
CC: Well, there you go. You and Calvin have things in common with us.
Ed: How did you feel then--as I recall, you were a guest at the Oscars.
CC: Yeah, I was at Oscars, and I actually walked the Red Carpet.
Ed: Oh that's great! Who were you wearing?
CC: Uh, just whatever my wife told me to put on. I have no idea. You know, who you are wearing, and all of that, I think when you get into that, you take yourself too seriously. I was--I didn't care who I was wearing. I was hanging out and having a good time.
Ed: Yeah, I made a comment like that in my blog that I wrote about the Oscar results.
CC: Yeah, you know, look--it was fun, and it's humbling, and it's an honor, but at the end of the day it's a 14 inch statue that means nothing. I still have to go back to work, and I will still be with my family, and you know, it can't define us.
Ed: Right. Were you given a replica of an Oscar, then?
CC: Oh no, no. It's a documentary. I'm not an actor. It wasn't a scripted deal. The Oscars are to celebrate artists. Artists are the producers and the directors of the documentary, and not the subject. So appropriately they are the ones awarded with the Oscar, and I was back in the wings and cheered them on. I was very happy for them.
Ed: (Before I can ask a couple of other questions the publicist informs us that the allotted 8 minutes are up )
Well, thank you, Bill, uh, Coach.
CC: That's fine. good bye.
Ed: Good bye.


Rated R. Our ratings: V -6; L -1; S/N-4. Running time: 1 hour 24 min.

Matt, Steve, and Andrew impulsively enter a large hole in the ground.
(c) 2012 20th Century Fox Films

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves;...
                                                       Genesis 11:1-4a

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
                                                             Ephesians 4:25-27

Set in Seattle, this story of three teenagers who crawl down a mysterious hole and find themselves receiving unusual powers through contact with a mysterious glowing object is one of the best cautionary parables that I have seen in a long time. And the teens are entirely believable, at first using their new telekinetic powers for typical teenage pranks--blowing up the skirt of a cheerleader, lifting their Pringles from the can directly into their mouths, playing a prank on a woman shopper by transporting her car to a different parking space, and helping the least popular of the trio gain popularity at through a "magic act" at the school talent show.

Andrew (Dane De Haan) is the shy member of the group, often the brunt of taunts and bullying. It could be as a defensive measure that he starts taking a video camera everywhere, thus creating the bulk of the videos that make up this "found footage" film, as in The Blair Witch Project. Other footage comes from a camera that a girl uses, plus images from surveillance cameras and such (a clever way of including Andrew in the shots is when he uses his power to make the camcorder hover in the air a few feet from the three films while recording). Andrew's mother is bedridden, and his father is an abusive alcoholic, often hitting his son out of anger and frustration.

The other members of the trio are Andrew's cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), an  African American extremely popular with their classmates. When Andrew becomes enraged by a tailgater blaring his horn because they are not driving fast, he uses his telekinetic powers to push the offending car off the road and into the river. The boys rescue the injured man from drowning, and afterwards Matt declares to them that there must be rules governing their use of their new-found powers. Never use them against a living being, and never use them in anger. Steve readily agrees, but Andrew does so reluctantly, forewarning the viewer of the darkness soon to follow.

The boys discover that the more they practice their power, the stronger it becomes--much like exercising that increases their muscle power and control. Then comes the day when they learn they can fly. This proves difficult at first for a couple of them, but soon they all are cavorting among the clouds. This sequence is especially effective at showing their teenage playful exuberance. If only it could last. But Andrew finds it increasingly difficult to contain his anger, especially at home where his mother is dying and his father is taking out his own anger on his son. The last portion of the film matches that of another film about a teenager using her powers to strike back at her oppressors, Carrie. Like all good cautionary films, there are unintended consequences that prove disastrous.

Director Joshus Trank and screenplay writer Max Landis's film is an excellent one for a group of youth to watch and discuss. (However, it is rated PG-13, so parents should be forewarned before taking a youth group to see this!) The teens in the film are portrayed so realistically, exhibiting both the energy and excitement of teens discovering unexpected powers while reacting at times with a mixture of maturity and irresponsibility, the latter indicated by not thinking of the consequences of their acts. The plot will remind sci-fi and comic book fans will of films of the past few years dealing with the origins of super heroes, only this film is more realistic in that the three teenagers are more interested in playing pranks than in donning a mask and costume to pursue a noble cause on behalf of justice. The cautionary lesson taught in the dark last chapter of the story grows out of an understanding that not everyone who receives a great gift will exercise great responsibility.

For Reflection/Discussion
1. What do you think of each of the three main characters? Who has the most going against him? Who exhibits the most responsibility"
2. What do you think of the advice of Uncle Ben in Spiderman, referred to in the last line above?
3. At what points does the film effectively show that these are typical teenagers? If you had discovered that you had such power at that age, how might you have used them? Or if you are a teenager, in what situations might you use it? Against someone? (A bullying or obnoxious classmate or teacher? How might you use it for, rather than against, someone or cause?)
4. Andrew clearly has anger problems: have you ever wanted to "get" an obnoxious driver while out on the road? Maybe one who recklessly cuts in? (I've often wished for a tire to go flat on such a person's car, indicating that I'm more like Andrew than I like to think I am.)
5. What do you think the apostle Paul meant when he wrote "Be angry, but do not sin"? Is it anger, or the harm that we commit while angry that is sinful? Was Jesus ever angry? Check out anger or angry in a Bible concordance. Are their times when we ought to be angry? Check out the Hebrew prophets on this.
6. How might a more mature Andrew have dealt with his anger? How did his friends attempt to help him? What might they have done differently that would have led to a different outcome?
7. How is this film similar to other cautionary tales? What are some of them? (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; Frankenstein; The Invisible Man; The Fly; Fahrenheit 451; Flatliners; Jurassic Park; The Road; 1984. to name just a few. What are some others?)
8. What unintended consequences happen in the film? What unintended consequences have you experienced? How does this show our limitations? How did you cope with them?
9. How is the story of the tower of Babel a cautionary tale? What is it that the cautionary tale warns us against--human hubris, pride in our own power? The assumption that we can live without God? The refusal to admit that there are limits to our human power? How can caution also be used to impede progress (see the case of the introduction of anaesthesia in the 19th century, or the use of contraceptives today). How can a balance be struck? Note how this is important in the developing science and practice of genetics.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Act of Valor

Rated PG. Our ratings: V -1; L -1; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones,
and those who have knowledge than those who have strength;
for by wise guidance you can wage your war,
and in abundance of counsellors there is victory .

Proverbs 23:5-6

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

When I first saw this engrossing film I thought that it would make a powerful recruiting tool for the Armed Services. Since then I have learned that that is exactly how Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s film began--it was as a seven-minute training film for the Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen. Seeing the dramatic possibilities in their footage, the partners expanded it with a fictional plot, but used the same actual SEALs rather than actors for members of the team.
This explains the authenticism of the combat sequences which take up most of the screen time--unlike actors, they needed no further training to use the high tech surveilance systems and weapons used in the film. These guys are the real thing. We are given in the opening segment showing the soldiers interacting with their wives and families just enough information--one of them is an eager expectant father--so that wecare for what happens to them in the intense firefights with terrorists and drug dealers. However, there are not enough deatils of any of the participants so that they emerge as full-blooded persons. As some critics have observed, this film is just a leg above a combat video game.
The civilians back home and the villains, who threaten Americans by sending via Mexico to the States 18 suicide bombers equipped with vests filled with ball bearings designed to kill hundreds of people at a time, are played by 7 actors. How the SEALs stake out and take out the latter makes for spell-binding viewing, though after the long sequence involving three connected missions--the rescue of a female CIA agent being tortured, the capture of the terrorist leader, and the pursuit of the suicide terrorists being smuggled into southern California--a viewer is left with plenty of questions to ponder.
The scope of the film is deliberately limited to the Navy Seals. Isn't it also important to see the larger picture of what are the reasons for terrorists hating the USA? The filmmakers claim no political agenda--they just want to honor our fighters who are risking their lives--but isn't leaving out the larger picture in itself an agenda, albeit an unconscious one? The film raises for people of faith other issues as well, including that of how one holds the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount in tension with combating terrorists. There is no easy answer to this and other questions such movies as this one raises. Do you see the danger that such films always pose the danger of inspiring viewers to become unthinking wavers of the flag?

For reflection/Discussion
1. If you have a favorite character, which one is it--and why? What qualities do the soldiers exhibit? Compare the way in which the soldiers and the villains are portrayed.
2. How does the film show the importance of team work? Note that one of the men refers, consciously or not, to the Ecclesiastes passage.
3. When one of the men sacrifices his life for the team, how did this bear out their commitment to one another?
4. Do you think we should see the larger picture, or are such films as this, focusing just on the valor of the combatants enough? Do you believe that it is important to try to understand the motives of terrorist, and if so, why? Or is it enough just to say "They attack us because they hate us, or hate democracy? Can you think of any reasons why some might hate us so passionately?
5. How can we avoid the mistakes of the Sixties and honor the troops, even while questioning the war(s) in which they fight?
6. Do you see ways of honoring Jesus' teachings in regard to enemies and our policy and use of violence in resisting the attacks of others? For instance, how did you feel, and what did you believe, concerning our President's announcing the death of Osama bin Laden?

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Joys and Disappointments at the 84th Oscars

Some observations by Edward McNulty


People of faith had good reasons to rejoice as the golden statues were handled out on Sunday, Feb. 26. Despite all the silliness over who was wearing whose gowns and the overly gushy compliments ladled out by the interviewers on the Red Carpet, what transpired inside the "Bankrupt Theater" (Billy Crystal's remark about the dropping of "Kodak" from the name of the Theater), the 84th Oscar Awards brought some surprises and lifted up some deserving films and performances. First, the reasons for joy.

The surprise for some was the choice of a foreign film with almost no dialogue as "Best Picture." In a recent article about the Oscar Nominations I wrote this about the film (the following capsule reviews are from my "Oscar Good News" article):
The Artist
Rated PG-13. Ecclesiastes 9:11-12; 1 Corinthians 13:4a
This blend of A Star is Born and Singing in the Rain is a delight to see, with no audible
dialogue until the end. Set in the late 20s when sound is being introduced to motion pictures, it
is the story of a fall of a silent film actor and the rise of the young actress whom he helped
break in to the profession. Themes of love, grace and the danger of pride are well developed.
The latter “preaches” well, with the pulpiteer pointing out how most of us prefer to be on the
giving end, but that at times we must become humble enough to admit that we need help, and
then to accept it.
The film earlier in the evening was given four other Oscars, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Score, and Best Costume.

I was especially pleased with the selection of Undefeated for "Best Documentary Feature," having received the screener disc last week and finding so many rich scenes of a high school football coach imparting to his players life lessons of perseverance, faith, and hope. (See my review either at  or a version for subscribers that includes discussion questions at

Actor/Director George Clooney's excellent The Descendents, won just a single Award, but a significant one, "Best Original Screenplay," garnered by screenwriters, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash. Here is my capsule review showing why people of faith should see it.
The Descendants
Rated R. Matthew 18:2; Psalm 24:1-2.
Grace, responsibility to the land, and family reconciliation—director Alexander Payne's film, set in Hawaii has all this and more. (See an earlier blog for the "more.") George Clooney's character exercises such restraint at two key moments in the film that the would be a good example to use when preaching on the kenosis passage in Philippians 2, or any time one is dealing with Jesus “emptying himself.

One of my favorite films of the year won four Awards, but mainly in the technical area--Best Art Direction, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. I was hoping the Martin Scorcese would get the nod for "Best Director." My thoughts on Hugo:
Rated PG. Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 11:6d
An orphaned boy secretly living above the concourse of a Parisian train station during the
1930s discovers his purpose in life—to fix a complicated automaton left by his father and,
ultimately, a broken man.

The flawed but still wonderful The Help was honored by the awarding of "Best Supporting Actress" to Octavia Spencer for playing the delightfully feisty maid Minny Jackson, who put the you know what into the pie given to her racist employer. My take on this:
The Help
Rated PG-13. Psalm 146:7b-9; Proverbs 31:8.
This civil rights era story set in Jackson Mississippi affirms the importance of sisterhood and of
the support of the church (that is, the part of the church faithful to the gospel, the black church) for the black maids and the white writer in exposing racism in the domestic workplace. Be sure to check out Lawrence Dunbar's poem “We Wear the Mask” for use in a study session or sermon in which you deal with this film. Feminists will love the sisterhood that grows among the women.

And then there is, of course, Meryl Streep, up for what, as I recall, her 17th Oscar nomination. I also regard her as the greatest actress of our generation, and though Iron Lady is not one of my favorite films because of its subject matter, her skill and hard work at impersonating the subject of the film deserves the recognition it has received from the Academy. However, as I say below, her win also was a disappointment.

And thus let's begin with this disappointment--that Viola Davis was passed over for the "Best Actress" award. Her performance as the quite and patient maid Aibileen Clark was one of the most memorable of a string of great performances--remember her in Doubt as the desperate and loving mother who saw a possibly pedophile priest as a life saver for her son, picked-upon because he was gay ? We can only hope that she will secure more roles that will convince Academy voters what a great actress she is.

Another disappointment was that Demian Biehir, who played the sacrificing father in A Better Life was passed over for "Best Actor." Even though understandable in that this was his first nomination and that the film was relegated largely to the art house circuit, still I wish the voters had surprised us by choosing him, and bringing to a wider audience such a richly rewarding film about an illegal immigrant in southern California who gives up so much to give his teenaged son "a better life." Given the bitter divide in our nation over the subject of illegal immigration, this film can remind both sides that there are human lives at stake in the outcome of the conflict.

Three films that fit into my category of the "Entirely Passed Over" are  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part2; and Tree of Life. The first is a wonderful quest/journey film in which a grieving and guilt ridden boy is trying to connect with his father who perished in one of the Twin Towers:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.  Isaiah. 66:13, Matthew 5:4
This powerful post 9/11 story about grieving 11 year-old Oskar begins on the day when the planes brought the Twin Towers down. The boy does not answer the phone when his father, trapped high up in one of the Towers, calls home, so there is a measure of guilt in Oskar's obsessive search later to find what a key he finds in his father's closet might fit. A year later his search takes him to all the boroughs of Manhattan where he meets an assortment of people with their own needs. He soon is accompanied by the mute old man living across the street in a room he rents from the boy's Grandmother. The boy, who might be on the edge of Asperity’s, is portrayed by newcomer Thomas Horn who even overshadows the great cast of veterans—Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Max von Sydow. An extremely good and close to the heart movie!

The Harry Potter film is perhaps the best of the series, one suffused with themes from Christian theology, interestingly enough summed up by the villain when he and Harry finally meet face to face, "Harry Potter, the boy who lived... come to die." I wish it could have won at least one of the technical awards. However, I am consoled not only by the fact that so many fans have already seen it, but that many of these folk will be returning to it again and again through the years.

This probably will not be so for Terrence Malik's wonderful film, the least seen of the nine films nominated for "Best Picture" because his non-narrative style is difficult for many film goers to fathom. However, as the most theological of all of last year's films, I wish it could have received more than just a nomination. Those of us who did appreciate this complex, theological film will just have to keep trying to convince our friends that they need to see it.
The Tree of Life
Rated PG-13. Job 38:4-7; Matthew 5:45b
Terence Malick's film can be seen as a visual meditation on the Job passage, the text of which
we see on the screen at the beginning of the film. Departing from the usual narrative structure,
the film includes scenes of a family living in Texas in the Fifties, with the themes of law and
grace of great beauty. The director even inserts the creation of the universe from the Big Bang
through the dinosaurs, and a family reunion beyond this life. The mother as “grace” and the
father “as law” lend themselves to a discussion of some of the themes of Paul in Galatians and

How did you feel at the end of the Awards broadcast--besides sleepy, that is? Perhaps like myself, you felt a mixture of joy and disappointment. Those of you who are preachers, teachers, and youth leaders will find rich treasures in all of the above films. And now, begins the Oscar watch for 2012. Will the delightful, currently showing, Big Miracle be noticed by members of the Academy--and by people of faith.