"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27)

Monday, May 4, 2015

An Open Letter to David Ayer

Dear Mr. Ayer,

As with many others, I am a great admirer of your work.  You have a unique voice in Hollywood in that your films (and their characters) consistently grapple powerful themes ranging from light/dark, dealing with tragedy and even faith.

It's for this reason that I'm writing you today.  I'm co-founder of ScreenFish.net, an exciting new site devoted to exploring the relationship between faith and film.  The themes and stories that you address really connect with this style of conversation and we would love to speak to you about them.

We understand that you're very busy right now but it's our hope that you would be willing to be our very first official interview for the ScreenFish podcast.  While our primary focus is film reviews and discussion, we would also like to include interviews with directors, actors and screenwriters who might be willing to speak with us as well.  If you could spare just 20 minutes of your time, we could Skype and discuss some of the themes within your incredible work in the past (and, if you're willing, what appeals to you about Suicide Squad).

We were hoping you might be able to be on our June 4th edition of the podcast, recording some time the week prior. (Of course, if you're willing to speak to us but need to move the date, we'll make that accommodation around your schedule as well.)

Please let me know what you think.  Honestly, we'd love to hear from you and let you speak about your passion for storytelling.

Steve Norton

PS.  If it makes a difference, I even live just outside Toronto.  So, for now, we're practically neighbours!  lol

Monday, April 27, 2015

ScreenFish: Casting our nets somewhere else...

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

Or do they?

Yes, they do.

For the past 3 1/2 years now, we are all aware that I've been moonlighting as a film theologian for HollywoodJesus.com.  (I realize that that term sounds pretentious.  I'd originally referred to myself as a reviewer and you might as well--but what we did there was... something different...)  Over that time, I've made a number of very close friends--even if they are American ;)--and we have had conversations that have been extremely valuable and shaping for me, both personally and spiritually.  Some pastors, some lay-workers but all dedicated Christians, HollywoodJesus.com was my way of seeking out like-minded people such as myself who both love the Lord and film in the most bizarre and wonderful ways.

In many ways, it was an oasis.

However, in recent months, with some key changes within the site that I don't need to bore you with, it was becoming increasingly apparent that my time there was coming to an end.  Not out of bitterness or anger, mind you.  I truly wish the new HJ well and hope for their success.  Rather, over time, it simply was becoming increasingly clear that what I was interested in doing was less and less in line with where they were heading.

It's time for something new.

Enter ScreenFish.

ScreenFish.net is an exciting adventure for me, personally.  Working with several amazing writers from the Hollywood Jesus crew, we get to build something special from the ground up.  With ScreenFish, we are praying and hoping to create something unique that speaks Christ into the world as Paul does in Acts 17 -- by utilizing the language of the world to point to something larger.  Our intent is to start conversations through high-quality reflections on the cinematic voices that speak into our culture, whether it's superhero franchise or Oscar-worthy film festivals.

But that's not all.

Something that I'm really excited about is our first venture into podcasting.  Starting the first week of May, ScreenFish intends to enter into the world of digital downloads with bi-weekly conversations about faith and film.  This is something I've wanted to be involved with for a long time and I believe will be something you'll want to hear.  Our intent is to have quality voices that know what they're talking about (as well as me... lol) so that you can reflect on the messages and stories that shape our culture.

Now, why ScreenFish?

'Screen' is relatively obvious in many ways.  We are a culture that live and die by the screen nowadays.  While some film sites hold to terms like 'Reel', this site recognizes that the way we consume media has changed.  As many people watch The Avengers on their phones and tablets as they do on their home theatre (or at the theatre).  However, the messages are still being communicated--and need to be reflected upon.

As for the 'Fish', as 1st Century Christians were being persecuted by the Roman culture, the Early Church came up with a symbol in order to identify themselves or meeting places.  An acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour (or Ichthus) spelled out the Greek word for fish and thus, the 'Jesus fish' symbol was born.  

It was who they were.

In the spirit of this, we view ScreenFish.net as not just a place for Christians to congregate but for a conversation to be sparked.  Our prayer is that this space will be one where people regardless of religion, ethnicity or sexual-orientation will feel as though their opinion will be heard and respected.

After all, we're all watching the same things.  So, we might as well be able to talk about them.

There's much more percolating right now so stay tuned for more.  (After all, we're starting with a blank slate so we can literally go any route that we choose at this point.)  The site isn't fully active yet and will be a work in progress but you can already sign up for e-mail updates.  Just sign your email into the prompted area at ScreenFish.net and we'll keep you posted!

In a short time, we hope to have something of value for you to make our site a frequent stop.

Make no mistake.  This will be a Fish worth catching.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Still Another Top Ten List - 2014 Edition

It's that time again.

As I have done in the past, I have opted to compile my list of Top 10 Favourite Films of the year.  As it stands right now, I admit that there are lots of 'heavyweights' that I haven't seen thus far.  Films like Unbroken, Fury, The Imitation Game and Interstellar I simply wasn't able to take in due to time constraints and I'll likely have to catch up with on video.  (I hear that's simply not doing Interstellar justice but can't help that...)  What's more, I don't count last year's Oscar fare either--some of which I would have seen in January--because it feels stale and it's already 'been done'.

With that in mind, it's important to remember that this list really is a composite of my favourite film experiences of the year.  Some of these wouldn't qualify as the 'best' movies I've seen but, rather, the ones that have had the most impact on me for any number of reasons.  (And hey, there's still two weeks of the year.  Who knows if this could change?)  In a year of cyber-terrorism, Biblical "non-Biblical" epics and the continuing dominance of comic book films, these are the ten most likely to end up on my BluRay shelf, if they're not there already (and yes, I still buy hard copies... I'm an old man...).  Some are more intense, others simply fun.  In fact, as I stare at the list, I can see they're all over the map.  (I also admit it's heavier on 'blockbusters' than previous years--which I think is both good and bad.)

Since you're positively bursting with the fruity flavour of anticipation, let's get down to it...

Top Ten 2014 (So Far...)

10.)  Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (rated PG) -- "On your feet, maggot!" One of the more entertaining and ambitious blockbusters of the summer, Edge of Tomorrow was skipped by many at the box office... but it shouldn't have been.  Smarter than Spiderman and more entertaining than Godzilla, Tom Cruise's latest sci-fi had a brain and a sense of humour.  Not only is it one of Cruise's best films in the last 20 years, it also provides excellent conversations about redemption and the value of our actions.  (It was also scientology onscreen... but that's besides the point.)

A true summer blockbuster that most people didn't give much of a chance.

They were wrong.

9.)  Noah (rated PG-13) -- This was the year that Christians were invited to go back to the movies.  With films like God's Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, Mom's Night Out and even a remake of Left Behind, there was an intentional draw for evangelical Christians to head out to the multiplex.  Every one of these films was designed to pat Believers on the head and affirm what they already knew.  In many ways, I felt it was more of a blatant cash grab than some franchises.

But Noah gave us something different.

Something we'd never seen before.

With Noah, Darren Aronovsky sought to challenge his audience and their Biblical understanding.  This was much to the chagrin to many people--even causing Rick Warren to tweet his own disinterest--but, personally, I found it engaging and even honest.  Aronovsky genuinely wrestled with the text and attempted to grapple with one of the more famous--and difficult--passages in Scripture.  An atheist himself (but, having been raised Jewish, passionate about the story), Aronovsky took a more humanist perspective but also opened up tremendous doors for conversation about the nature of God's love, grace and wrath.  The sheer impact of a film like this demands it be in my Top 10 as the church and Hollywood engaged in a spiritual conversation for roughly two solid weeks--which is a long time by their standards.  Whereas God's Not Dead only resonated with believers (although it's box office run was astonishing), it really didn't open up doors to speak with not-yet Christians as well.

8.)  Guardians of the Galaxy (rated PG-13)-- The fact that this is so low on the list will bring the ire of many a fanboy I'm sure.  The truth is that it is a very good Marvel movie.  One of the better ones, in fact.  Director James Gunn manages to take a well-worn formula with well-worn stereotypes and, somehow, make it feel fresh.  Christ Pratt officially catapulted himself into leading man status,  Bradley Cooper made a talking raccoon believable, and Groot... well... he danced...  To an amazing soundtrack...  In addition, the film issued a fun illustration of the value of the broken and redemption for those who society ignores.

But calm down, people.

The film is far from perfect and, although a fun ride, doesn't stick with you much long-term like other MCU entries like Iron Man and The Avengers before it.  Also, Batista and Zoe Saldana were quite forgettable.  (I also admit that my enthusiasm was a little less than others simply due to the over-enthusiasm for it.)  Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it deserves a space on my Top 10... just not as highly as some might expect or desire.

7.)  The Lego Movie (rated PG) -- Yes, everything is awesome.  Not because they somehow managed to make an entertaining movie strictly about a brand name.  (Next up: McDonalds: The Movie!  Watch Big Mac stop the Hamburgler!)  Ultimately, Instead of simply making a commercial for their own product (and, it is), they manage to do something more: they managed to tell a human story amidst these cgi bricks and figures.  With an ending that goes completely meta, the film actually speaks directly to families and the importance of time spent together.  What's more, with its insight into a reality outside our own, the film also has tremendous spiritual implications as well.  Through Emmett's journey(Incidentally, the film is also far more self-aware and better researched than you realize.  Google 'Cloud Cuckoo Land'.  I dare you.)

6.)  The Fault in Our Stars (rated PG) -- I admit it.  I'm a man in my mid-30s and I thought this was excellent.  The truth is that I had no idea that this book was a big deal until around mid-March.  It was about that time that the youth (girls, especially) started talking about the film with anticipation.  Of course, no one else my age seemed aware of it either so I took an interest.  John Green's novel of two cancer-riddled teens struck me right between the eyes in such a way that I felt they couldn't possibly match it with the ensuing film.  Again, I was wrong.

TFIOS was one of those truly rare young adult novels that grappled with suffering and hope in honest, realistic ways.  While I found the story to be a tad too nihilistic, it does offer a perspective on faith that is shared by many and is worth engaging.  I know I wasn't their target demographic but I was tremendously moved by both the film and book.

Okay?  Okay.

5.)  Chef (rated R) -- Taking a page from his own film, Jon Favreau takes a break from Iron Man to rediscover the type of filmmaking that he relishes.  (No pun intended.)  Even though it has cameos from some of Hollywood's biggest stars, the film plays out like an indie film that is accessible to anyone.  By telling the story of a man attempting to find himself by starting over, he creates a story of hope for both the individual and the modern family as well.  Plus, it was just plain fun.  If you haven't seen it, rent it and enjoy.  (But eat first.  It will make you insanely hungry... lol)

4.)  X-Men: Days of Future Past (rated PG-13) -- This was the X-Men film that I didn't think they could make.  While much debate rages over whether or not this film is better than X-Men: First Class, this one wins my vote for sheer audacity.  Managing to improve a rebooted franchise and restore respectability to the original films, DOFP offered nostalgia and fresh perspective.  What's more, it's simply incredibly entertaining as well.  Time travel movies can be difficult to pull off but DOFP manages to do so while also wrestling with the damage of sinful past and the effect of hope.  Although I'm a huge fan of X2: X-Men United, this likely wins my vote for best entry in a franchise that should have run out of gas ages ago.  (Even if the ending technically threw away the original trilogy--hey, if Star Trek can do it...)

3.)  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (rated PG) -- Unequivocally my favourite action film of the year, Dawn did what so few franchises accomplishes: making you think while blowing your mind.  Whereas the film's predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be an excellent opener to a much larger story, Dawn expands and deepens its impact in just about every way.  Other than the incredible performance by Gollu... er... Andy Serkis as Caesar, these apes engage us emotionally and even spiritually as they struggle with their issues.  There are no definitive lines of good and evil.  In fact, these apes have very human struggles of their own.  The film even serves as a tremendous metaphor for the Cold War or even post-9/11 international diplomatic relations.

2.)  Whiplash (rated R) -- This was one of the films that truly stuck with me this year.  While the story isn't overly complicated, it is committed to its purpose early and never deviates.  Grappling with the power of obsession, this film is intense and surprisingly gripping considering it's about a boy who wants to join a band.

Still, this is no ordinary band... and no ordinary band leader.

J. K. Simmons' performance as the crazed maestro of this orchestra is so good that, when he's not on screen, you wish that he is.  He balances charisma and terror in a way that I haven't seen since Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight.  (And Simmons absolutely deserves one himself.)  Whiplash is one of those films that is simply a must-see.

1.)  Boyhood (rated R) -- Okay, here's where my not having seen the other Oscar faire this time of year is an issue.  But, from what I've seen and heard, this is my opinion.  And it won't change.

Boyhood deserves to win Best Picture at the Oscars in February 2015.

Although my initial fear was that the film was a bit 'gimmicky', I have since come to believe what a special film it truly is.  Although I've heard it called 'slow' by some, I can understand why.  Whereas most films attempt to keep you gripped by the next 'twist', Boyhood actually gives us something rare in modern narrative: reality.  Taking over 12 years to complete, Richard Linklater's fictional tale plays out like a documentary as we follow a young man through his life from the age of 6 until his high school graduation.  By the end, there have been no 'earth-shattering' moments.  No 'shocking reveals'.  Just... life.  I've heard it described that the film carries with it a sense that 'we will get through it'.  I would completely agree.  Where is God when life is happening?  How do we get through the difficult seasons?  Is life truly a journey?  These are all questions that Boyhood asks and we are invited to discuss.

Without question, Boyhood is an experience unlike any you will get at the cineplex this year.  And Oscar needs to recognize it.

Honourable Mention:  CalvaryThe Grand SeductionRosewater, The 'F' Word (aka What If), The Judge (Hey, I liked it... even if the critics didn't...)

Unsung MVP:  Brendan Gleeson -- He's not a key name on the marquis--and he's hardly new on the scene--but this Irish actor was in three fantastic films in 2014.  Calvary was probably one of the best films I saw this year that didn't crack the Top 10 (but it almost did).  The Grand Seduction is a must-see Canadian film that, although it premiered at TIFF '13, it didn't officially open until June of this year.  (And, of course, there's Edge of Tomorrow.)  Why Unsung MVP?  Not only for the quality of each film but the sheer variety of each role.  Each one was challenging in it's own right (although, to be fair, his involvement in Edge was minimal and required less work) and every role was entirely different from the last.  He is definitely on my radar from now on.

Most Underrated:  Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow -- No question.

Most Surprising:  Men, Women & Children -- Surprising isn't necessarily the word to use here as I am a great fan of Jason Reitman's work.  Still, when we saw this film at TIFF this past year, my expectations were low.  What we discovered was a dark, cynical--and painfully accurate--examination of the Internet age and the manner in which we communicate now.  Of all the films I've seen this year, I don't think I've been more disturbed... or had a better conversation about afterwards.  In many ways, the film is hard to recommend.  One needs to prepare themselves for it.  Still, you'll rethink your Facebook usage afterwards..

Most Overrated:  Grand Budapest Hotel -- I admit it.  I really fought the urge to put Guardians of the Galaxy in this slot due to the over-enthusiasm of the film's fans but, in the end, that film simply won me over.  Grand Budapest has yet to do so.  While I admit it's beautiful (most Wes Anderson stuff is) and well written (most Wes Anderson stuff is), I still find the film relatively inaccessible in a number of ways (most Wes... you get the picture.)  It has appeared as an Oscar front-runner and I understand why I suppose.  Still, I found the film left me relatively cold as though I was on the outside of the hotel, asking for permission to come in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Exodus: Kicking and Screaming into the Kingdom

By now, it should be no shock to anyone that I've come to enjoy this latest wave of Biblical epics.

Personally, I'm not threatened by a revisionist take on a narrative that I hold closely to my heart.  I believe it reveals so much about our culture's understanding of the very stories that we proclaim as truth that I can't help but get a little excited about the opportunities for conversation that seem to sprout up around the release of such films.  (In fact, Noah may very well make it into my Top 10 this year... we will see...)

So, let's talk Exodus: Gods and Kings.  (Caution:  This will be Spoiler-Heavy...)

Directed by Ridley Scott, Exodus: Gods and Kings is (another) revisionist tale on a popular Biblical narrative, this time examining the life of Moses.  Without question, Ridley Scott's vision is far closer akin to Aronovsky's Noah than De Milles' The Ten Commandments.  Instead of taking a traditional reading of the story, Scott feels free to play with the narrative, cutting out scenes and details that will leave many Christian viewers frustrated.  (What?  No baby in a basket?  No staff into serpents?!  No "Let My People Go"?!?)  What's more, while Scripture depicts Moses as a man of intimacy with God (after the Burning Bush anyways), Scott's vision creates a spiritual void within the film's hero.

In essence, Scott's vision of Moses is one of skepticism.  For example, as Pharaoh consults the mystics early on, Moses stands by and sneers.  However, his attitude stems not from a worshiping heart of the Hebrew God, but rather his disbelief that there is anything truly spiritual beyond what we can see.  This vision of Moses is a man of strength, courage and, above all else, self-reliance.

No, this Moses does not carry a staff.  He carries a sword.

This leads to an incredible tension within his own life, especially after his exile.  When he finally encounters God on the mountain at Horeb, Moses literally has to be held down in order for him to listen to God speak.  He neither needs nor wants a God.  So, when he is enlisted to free the Israelites, he is the one who intentionally tries to do things by the sword.  In a scene reminiscent of Scott's recent reimagining of Robin Hood, Moses even turns the people of Israel into a revolutionary army--or at least attempts to.  (Even the visual omission of the 'baby in a basket' suggests that they should not show Moses in any vulnerable position.)It is only in those moments when Moses comes to the end of his rope when God is finally allowed the freedom to move miraculously.  Furthermore, during the plagues, the one who is most disconcerted by the circumstances is not Pharaoh, but Moses.  While Pharaoh clings to his son and attempts to understand, Moses glares angrily at the sky, screaming "Is this meant to humble me? Because it will not!"  As such, Moses refuses to acknowledge what is directly in front of him on many occasions: That the God of the Hebrews is the one true God.

Ironically, one thing the film really got right was the fact that Moses was a 'runner'.  Although he doesn't flee for his life into the desert, he is running from truth from the get-go.

He can't face the fact that he was born of another family.

He can't face the fact that there is anything beyond the physical realm.

And, it is not until the very end that he can truly except his faith in Yahweh.  (Maybe he's in... De-Nile? Bah hahaha).  This Moses may be full of courage but he fears anything that he does not understand.

And I believe Ridley Scott wants to understand.

Personally, the most interesting thing to me about this movie was the sense that it was less about Moses and more about Scott himself.  Having dedicated the film to his brother Tony (who took his own life last year), Scott focuses the film very much on his own personal life.  After having watched the film, one has to ask the question about whether or not this is really describing the journey of a man who desires to understand how other people can cling to faith in a world that has completely gone awry.  Grieving the loss of his brother, it would make total sense that Scott should be grappling with such issues.  (Incidentally, I am also drawn to Scott's previous 2012 sci-fi epic, Prometheus, in this regard.  Although sold as an alien horror flick, the film was really asking much larger questions about the meaning of life and the beginnings of the human race.)

As if he were trying to explain the story to himself and the world, Scott imbues his film with a sense of pragmatism.  Can't explain water into blood?  It must have been metaphoric.  (Enter horde of crocodiles!)  The parting of the Red Sea?  It must've been an earthquake/tsunami.  In fact, even the very centre of the Exodus narrative--Moses' privilege of communicating with God directly--is given an official 'explanation' by suggesting that these visions could simply be delusions as a result of a blow to the head.  In most instances, the miraculous is displayed as something that can be proven scientifically and quantified.

And yet.

There is also a strong sense within the film that there are things that cannot be explained.  Although Pharaoh's mystics appear to have a grasp on the scientific reasons behind the plagues, even they eventually give up.  Although one could argue that God is portrayed as distant and ineffectual (after all, He is only a Junior High kid...), I would take the opposite stance.  To me, I felt that the film portrayed God as ferocious, especially when it comes to His people.  His portrayal as a boy offers him a sense of innocence which makes him accessible to Moses--even understandable, if you will.  Although he struggles to believe, Moses also definitely wants to show God what he is capable of.  Yet, while Moses attempts to prove his worth to this new King, he is constantly reminded of his own failures.

But when God moves, He shakes the earth.

Without question, this leads to my favourite moment within the film.  While confronting God after his inability to muster an Israelite rebellion, Moses angrily blasts Yahweh and begs, "What would you have me do now?"  His response?

"Nothing.  Just watch."  [Cue the plagues.]

Personally, I found this the most poignant moment within the film as God reminds Moses of his ineffectiveness while displaying His own raw power.  Despite any misgivings that Moses may have about Him, this vision of the 'I Am' is not to be trifled with.  He appears both innocent and authoritative.  In fact, Yahweh appears so powerful that, eventually, Moses cannot help but own his faith in a way that humbles him.  (In this moment, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' quote of his own life when he states that he was 'dragged, kicking and screaming--into the Kingdom'.)

Is Exodus: Gods and Kings the 'must see' movie of the Winter?  Likely not.  Still, I hope that Christians will take the rare (albeit, increasingly less rare?) opportunity to hear the heart of a man searching for answers simply out of disgust that it doesn't meet their 'expectations'.

Even if it doesn't show a single baby in a basket.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton
Directed by Ridley Scott
*** out of 5

Friday, July 25, 2014

Planes: Fire and Rescue

Having won last year’s Wings Around the Globe Rally, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) has turned into an overnight sensation.  The more races he wins, the more popular he becomes.  However, after a routine stunt breaks a rare part to his engine, Dusty is forced to consider retiring from racing altogether.  In addition, when an accidental fire reveals that Propwash Junction doesn’t meet current safety standards, their small town is forced to search for an additional rescue vehicle in order to stay open.  With his own future in question, Dusty volunteers to be certified and joins a team of fire fighters at Piston Peak to be trained.  As he is challenged by their gruff crew chief Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), Dusty begins to learn the value of sacrifice and what it means to be a true hero.

Admittedly, the Planes franchise is certainly built mostly around merchandising. Accused of playing out like a lighter version of Cars (and rightly so), the first film focused primarily on Dusty’s dream of being a racer in the face of adversity. Originally designed as a ‘straight-to-video’ release, Disney felt they had enough of a film to release on the big screen—and sell tons of toy planes along the way.  Still, in their second outing, Planes: Fire andRescue manages to bring something distinctly more dramatic to the franchise.

Opening with a dedication to those brave men and women who risk their lives fighting fires, Planes: Fire and Rescue does carry with it a sense of urgency.  Rather than the playfulness of a race around the world, Dusty is now faced with genuine risk both for his own safety and that of others.  “When other planes fly out, they fly in,” handyman Sparky remarks about Dusty’s new team.  Whereas the first film emphasizes the glory of winning the ‘big race’, Fire and Rescue connects true honor with risking one’s life for another person.  (In fact, the film’s primary villain is most guilty of serving his own ego, primarily seeking fame and recognition at the expense of the safety of others.)

In addition to this, the film also battles with issues of identity when tied to success as well.  For example, by taking away Dusty’s ability to race, the film places him into the middle of an (kid-friendly) existential crisis.  All of a sudden, he’s left to ask who he is if he can’t do what he loves most?  Although he takes his certification process very seriously, he also does so with the belief that he’ll one day be able to return to racing and, as a result, actually causes strain on his fire safety training. The more tightly he holds onto what he wants, the more difficult it is for him to move forward.   Only after Dusty releases his dream can he truly begin his journey as a firefighter. (Although, to be fair, [spoiler alert] his dream also returns to him at the end.)

As a Christian, I sense a strong duality of the nature of sacrifice in this film.  First and foremost is the obvious sense of physical sacrifice on behalf of another.  As Blade Ranger, Windlifter and the rest of the team throw themselves into the fiery furnace, they do so knowing that every mission could be their last.  “If you give up today, think of all the people you won’t save tomorrow,” Blade sermonizes.  There is a steadfastness to their commitment and a bravery in these characters that trumps anything in the first film.  (Really?  Can you even compare a message like that to the ‘wisdom’ of El Chupacabra?)  Theirs is a sacrifice that few are willing to make – a truly, Christ-like sacrifice for the lives of others.

However, having said this, there is also another form of sacrifice at play in this film.  There is a sacrifice for calling as well.  In order for Dusty to truly become the plane that he is being called to be, he must be willing to sacrifice what he wants.  So often, as we journey with God, we hold on to things tightly when He invites us to loosen our grip.  As with Dusty, there are times when we receive these dreams again.  Still, there is freedom in trusting God with our lives and circumstances in a way that allows us to be changed by Him as well.

Is Planes: Fire and Rescue an instant Disney classic?  No, I’m afraid not.  However, there’s enough insight and depth to the characters in this film that it opens the door for tremendous spiritual conversations with children afterwards.

And hey, they’ll likely sell tons of toys along the way.

Planes: Fire and Rescue
Starring Dane Cook, Ed Harris
*** out of 5

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

“It’s their fault… Don’t tell me that it doesn’t make you sick to your stomach just to look at [the apes].” (Carver, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)

Taking place 10 years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn opens with an ape culture that has become much more highly evolved since their escape into the forest.  Having developed an organized society, they remain loyal to their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and believe that they are finally free of their previous human oppressors.  However, when a small band of humans are discovered on ape territory, tensions between the two species rise quickly.  As a result, battle lines between humans and apes are quickly drawn with both sides wrestling with whether or not the other can be trusted.

Still, Dawn is more than just a mindless summer blockbuster.  Beneath it’s ground-breaking CGI-work and explosive action, this film offers an incredible portrait of a developing Cold War that is reminiscent of any number of global conflicts (past and present).  However, rather than simply depict one side as ‘good’ and the other ‘evil’, Dawn creates tensions within each species, revealing that these conflicts rarely offer clear answers and perspectives. 

Ultimately, however, the most introspective piece in the film is its exploration of the damage of unresolved anger and unforgiveness.  Given that the origin of their culture came after their escape from captivity, there remains a history of pain that follows them into the darkness.  Yes, they have established a fully functioning society but a terrible rage boils under its surface.  Fear and anger arise within the apes the moment the encounter even one human face to face.  (Incidentally, this rage is also not merely relegated to the apes themselves.  Although mostly wiped out by the simian flu, the humans still very much blame the apes for their extermination as well.)  This is best exemplified through Caesar’s military advisor, Koba.  Still angered over his mistreatment in the labs, Koba remains bitter and believes that the true interest of the humans is ape extermination.  “Caesar trusts humans.  Koba does not,” he growls.

In contrast to this, however, lies Caesar.  Emotionally, Caesar has been forced to deal with his own bitterness and pain.  Although forgiveness is a strong word to use—he still wrestles with a great deal of pain—Caesar is at peace with his past.  He recognizes that not all humans are necessarily evil and, as a result, he is able to move on from the damage he has endured.  As a result, Caesar experiences true emotional freedom whereas Koba remains trapped in a cage built by anger and vengeance.

It’s here that the film treks into spiritual territory.  How do we deal with the rubble of our past?  How does God expect us to let our hurts go?  Having worked with many youth have are wrestling with the trauma associated with a history of abuse, I have seen the damage that one—or many—can cause another.  Forgiveness can seem insurmountable.  The concept of grace can be a difficult one to accept, whether it pertains to the victim or the attacker.  Yet, in the midst of this, Jesus still calls us to love our enemies.  He reminds us that, if we do not forgive, our Father in Heaven will not forgive us.  Without question, God sees value in the broken, even when their actions have caused harm.  (After all, our actions have often caused harm to others, regardless of whether or not it’s ‘as bad’ as theirs.)  In the same way that we accept His grace for ourselves, we are commanded to offer it to others.  Admittedly, this is not something that we can do for ourselves.  Genuine grace always stems from our Father who helps us to ‘no longer see [others] from a human point of view.’  (Even Caesar recognizes that evil is not strictly a trait that lies in humanity but within apes as well.)  In this moment, we understand that the other person’s need for Jesus’ healing is as great as our own and, potentially, opens up space for new beginnings and grace.

When this happens, we experience genuine spiritual freedom.

When this happens, we experience a new Dawn.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Starring Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke
Directed by Matt Reeves
****1/2 out of 5

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Noah (A Spoiler-y, Hope-I'm-Not-Too-Late Reflection)

Finally, I've seen Noah.

Admittedly, the film has only been released for a little over two weeks and it does take time for me to get to a theatre nowadays.  (Having a 3-year-old will do that to you...)

Still, this experience has been entirely different.

Unlike any other major studio faith-based movie that I can recall, Noah has sparked a firestorm of controversy.  Director Darren Aronovsky says "It's the least biblical Biblical film ever made."  This pastor says he's saving his money.  That Christian film site (that I write for) endorses the pic.  This Christian reviewer says it's challenged his faith and left him in tears.  That Christian author calls other Christian teachers who have called it art to be 'liars'.

Noah is gnostic.

Noah's a psychotic environmentalist.

Over the last few weeks, it seems like this movie demands an opinion and, as a result, interest has been extremely high.  I have had literally anywhere between 15-20 people come to me and ask me if I'd seen it and what I thought.  To be fair, given my interests in such things, it's not uncommon for people to ask this question about a film--but the sheer volume and intensity of the issue actually made me feel as though I'd missed the boat.  (Sorry.  Couldn't resist.)

Over the last few weeks, I have been very grateful to the likes of Peter T. Chattaway, Jacob Sahms, and Brian Godawa for their framing of the conversation around a film like this.  Their arguments (both conflicting and challenging) have caused me to reflect on this film more than any other in recent memory--and rightfully so.  A friend of mine that I love and respect told me that he chose to view this film "the same way that he would view any blockbuster like Jurassic Park or Pirates of the Carribbean".  (That's entirely his right and it is only a film, after all.)  However, I do feel that a comment like that is a little overly glib in an instance like this.

I mean, it's Noah.

While Jurassic Park was meant to generate a dinosaur thrill ride, Noah is bringing life to a story that we preach on Sunday mornings.  This is the guy who built the boat that rescued the vestiges of humanity from a worldwide flood.  It's a story that has huge implications as a Christ-metaphor in Scripture.  Really, if it means so much to us, shouldn't we care about it's portrayal on the big screen?

So, with all the controversy surrounding the film, why did I like it?

To begin, I admit that I am certainly one who falls on the side of the fence that this is an artistic interpretation of a very short story.  Some have suggested that Aronovsky had to 'stretch a passage of 5 chapters into a 2 hour movie' so, of course, he had add things, etc.  However, I also do not believe that this film was meant to desecrate a story that we hold dearly.  A confessed 'non-practicing Jew', Aronovsky actually has a strong affinity and passion for this particular story as well, having dreamed of making this film since his days in junior high.  Yes, he has added 'new' elements... but most of them stem from extensive research into Jewish midrashes and historical renderings of the story.  Rather than choose to 'nitpick' on details with which I may or may not be familiar or comfortable, I am much more interested in what Aronovsky's vision seeks to inform us as viewers.

In fact, one of the things that I appreciated the most about the film was Aronovsky's influence.  In many ways, this film was clearly an examination into Noah's psyche and his wrestling match with God.  There is no doubt that this was one of the key reasons that people have found the film disconcerting.  After all, Noah was a good man who loved God in the Scriptures.  The image of him as a madman who feels increasingly abandoned by God as the film progresses is not one that would make people comfortable.  (Though, to anyone that has ever seen an Aronovsky film, this should come as no surprise at all.  Black Swan, anyone?)  Nevertheless, to read Genesis 5-9, one thing that quickly becomes apparent is that it is told from God's perspective.  Noah says nothing throughout the entire narrative.  Despite the fact that Noah found 'favour with God' and 'obeyed all that God commanded him', we never directly hear his voice in the story.  Consequently, our vision of the man is most often one of passive humility.  Now, please bear with me.  This is not to question the value of humility before the Lord--that is not up for debate.  Still, what would an experience such as this have looked like from a human perspective?  Regardless of how one chooses to read the story, Noah would have still witnessed the destruction of the human race, whether it is justified or not.  One can only imagine the damage that this would have caused to his psyche (even resulting in his drunken binge afterwards).  Within the film, Noah is portrayed as a man who humbly serves the Creator and obeys when given a monumental responsibility.  He listens.  He builds.  He obeys.  However, Aronovsky also never allows us to forget that he is human either.

Crushed by the weight of God's decision to judge all of humanity, Aronovsky's Noah slowly descends into madness.  He "realizes" that God's care is only for the animals and that the human race will die out with his family.  (After all, why would God allow him to be spared when the evil rests in his heart as well?)  Many have been concerned by the fact that Noah becomes so obsessed with carrying out God's judgment that he even vows to kill innocent children in order to preserve God's will for His Creation.  Of course, there's only one problem with this assessment.

God never asks him to do anything but build an ark and open the doors.

Noah's impulse to 'destroy the future of the human race' comes entirely of his own understanding.  Traumatized and feeling abandoned, Noah draws his own conclusion of what God wants and attempts to carry out this 'justice' on his own.  As the story plays out, however, we bear witness to the fact that God has journeyed with Noah all along, even when he felt that he was stuck in darkness.  This image should not be lost on us as many of us have experienced periods of brokenness such as these.  Moments in the 'valley of the shadow of death' have been known to create fear and cause mankind to question the goodness of God.  Yet, to find ourselves in a place where we feel abandoned by God does not mean that we have been abandoned by God.  In this film, Noah seems to forget this truth but it does make him seem more... well... human.

Despite the fact that he is listed in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11, it is important to remember Noah's humanity in that this experience includes times of fear, anger and doubt.  As a result, I believe that a film like this can actually serve as an interesting companion to Scripture.  No, I am not suggesting that it's portrayal is so 'accurate' that it should be held in honour.  (Nothing else should be held in such high esteem as Scripture...)  Though, one must admit that the film does offer flavour and context to a story that has been too often emptied of it's power by childhood Sunday School lessons.  Aronovsky's film portrays Noah as a man called to do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances but also allows him the freedom to break down under the pressure.  That being said, Noah reminds us of the perils of our own humanity and warns us against ignoring God's commands.

Another piece that I particularly appreciated within the film was the portrayal of Ham.  Forced to grapple with the choice between honouring his father (whom he didn't fully understand) and the appeal of perceived power through Tubal-Cain, there was little doubt in my mind that Ham's journey mirrored the tension experienced in the Garden of Eden.  Whereas Noah seeks to follow the Creator's instruction of beginning anew, Ham cannot foresee how he can receive all that he needs (i.e. a wife).  Instead, he attempts to make plans for himself and fails miserably.  This leaves a void within him as he seeks control over his own life (epitomized in Tubal-Cain's offering of 'being a man') and submitting to his father's submission to God's plan.  Of course, by the end of the film, Noah's humanity has been made extremely apparent--a point which Ham feels the need to remind his father of by throwing the snakeskin at his feet in disgust.  However, despite Noah's 'missteps' along the way, the one who is ultimately 'expelled from the Garden' is Ham insofar as he refuses to be humbled and is forced to strike out on his own.  As such, the journey of Ham becomes symbolic of the human plight and represents the potential for humanities evil to be reborn, even in their new paradise.

That's powerful stuff, man.

Incidentally, the issue that I did take with the film was one that I have not heard from other reviewers thus far.  Of course, much has been made about Noah's theological stance.  After all, 1 Peter refers to him as a 'preacher of righteousness', placing the emphasis on the issue of 'righteousness' itself.  Complaints have targeted Noah's perceived lack of interest in God's holiness and that the people must repent lest judgment cometh.  Instead, Noah speaks about Creation care and God's protection of the 'innocent' animals.  Personally, I take no issue with this.  There's no doubt that this was Aronovsky's intent in making the film and, because he's not an evangelical himself, I don't believe that he can be held accountable to our traditional theological ideologies.  In other words, whether or not I agree with his position, the fact remains that it is his position and moviegoers need to be prepared that his vision may conflict with their traditional Sunday School versions.  What's more, due to Scripture's command to 'work and keep' the Garden, I am also a strong believer that Creation care is part of our mandate as followers of Christ.  With that in mind, how can I take issue with the fact that Noah seeks to honour the Creator by treating the Earth with respect or that he views the desolation that man has caused as sin?

No, ironically, my comparatively small issue with the film is that it does not portray our titular hero effectively as a 'preacher of righteousness'.  I'll explain.  Before I saw the film, I purchased and read the graphic novel, which was also co-written by Aronovsky and screenwriter Ari Handel.  As with any early drafts of a screenplay, there are significant differences between it and the final product.  As expected, I believe that some changes are for the better (in the novel, Noah awakens the animals to help him steal the babies on the ark) and some for the worse (the inclusion of the snakeskin).  Although, one of the changes that I felt the film sorely missed was the inclusion of a scene where Noah proceeds to the city to warn the people of the oncoming flood.  Of course, they do not heed the warnings (Spoiler Alert!), and Noah is promptly ejected from the city.  In the film, however, Noah's portrayal is a little different.  With the inclusion of the death of his father in the opening sequence (and that snakeskin), Noah becomes one who hides himself from humanity out of fear.  As a result, the only time that Noah warns anyone about the oncoming flood comes when he is discovered by the nomadic and violent human race.  Personally, I found this change to the narrative irked me in that Noah's interest in saving the human race became muted.  (Admittedly, he has already stated that he believes the Creator's intent was to save the 'innocent', which the human race clearly was not.)  In short, Noah moves from preacher to passive.  Yes, he earnestly taught his children the value of God's Creation.  (And, make no mistake.  Despite accusations to the contrary, Ham fully understands that "the Creator is God" in this film.) Still, I would have appreciated it greatly if Aronovsky had illustrated the arrogance of man by including a scene pre-flood that demonstrated an opportunity for mankind's redemption, even if it would have been subsequently rejected.  However, I admit that this is a relatively minor quibble.

By the end of Noah, Aronovsky depicts God as a righteous judge that seeks to restore what He established in Eden.  God's original intent for His Creation (nature, animals and humanity) is revealed to be a place of shalom that has been shattered by humanity's fallen nature.  As a result, the only solution was to wipe things out and start over.  (Incidentally, despite what many people believe, however, this was not solely an act of anger but an opportunity to reveal His love for His Creation.  Genesis claims that God's heart is 'grieved'--a word rooted in love.)  What's more, Noah's revelation within the film that the evil still resides in him portrays God as even more merciful by demonstrating that the problem hasn't been 'solved'.  Instead, God simply rescues the man who best represents the type of world that He had intended in order to begin again.  It is true to say that, within the film, Noah lets his circumstances overwhelm him in such a way that he loses sight of this vision and, consequently, his mental grip.  Ultimately, however, his character is not left in his spiritual mess and invited to rebuild God's shalom once more.

And, in our culture, that kind of truth that could really make some waves.

Starring Russell Crowe, Emma Watson
Directed by Darren Aronovsky
***1/2 (out of 5)