"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, September 9, 2013

TIFFology 300: Preparations, Remembrances and Things Left Unsaid

Cue the lights.  Play the music.

TIFF is back.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that this is one of my favourite times of the year.  I rabidly follow the development of the entire festival throughout the year, even keeping track of other festivals to see what may/may not make the final cut.  In many ways to me, it's like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning -- oh sure, you know what you asked for but you don't really know what you're going to get.

And yet...

This year, there's a little bit of a chill in the background.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm more than excited about it and have no less that 8 potential screenings scheduled.  (More on that later...)  Still, this year, I confess that the memories of last year linger in the shadows.  For most of you (both? ;) ) that read this when posted, you may have noticed that TIFFology took a break last year unexpectedly.  Given that last year's TIFF experience was forever linked with the loss of our unborn child, writing simply became too difficult.

However.

There is one post that began and was never completed and, finally, I feel it appropriate to share it with you.  The following was written shortly after last year's TIFF experience.  I remember writing this piece was actually really cathartic in my dealing with my feelings.  (And, that may be why I never published it...)  It remains unfinished and unedited but I will add more upon its conclusion.

_________________________________________________________________________________


Bear with me.

I admit that this is year's entry is going to start off really intensely.  The truth is that I simply cannot separate my TIFF experience this year from the hell that our family endured at the same time.  It shaped my week--my life--in a way that is impossible not to bring into this discussion as it will most certainly also shape my reflections.  So, before the reflections officially begin, I feel it appropriate to begin with the story and let the rest follow.

On Thursday morning, we got the news.

After a routine check-up with her midwife, my pregnant wife was told that they could not find the baby's heartbeat.

At first, I wasn't worried.  At all.  The truth is, we were only 15 weeks along and, as such, it's not uncommon.  In fact, I continued to make plans for my week, especially those involving TIFF.  I had purchased several tickets for this year's festival and had even enrolled in a theology course connected with the festival.  (Hmmm.  What a good idea.  Wish I'd thought of it...)  We had an appointment for an ultrasound first thing in the morning and I spent the rest of the day reassuring my wife that everything would be fine.  After all, why wouldn't it?  We had no indication of problems prior to this.

I was wrong.

At Friday's ultrasound, we were informed that the baby had died sometime over the past week and that we would have to wait until Sunday to officially lose him.

As you can imagine, we were (are?) crushed by this.  I won't forget that Sunday.  It was quite literally the worst day of my life.  To lose a child in this fashion is a pain that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.  It is essentially like losing a person that you love deeply, yet have never met.  Never truly having had to experience grieving personally, these feelings were (again... are?) overwhelming and difficult to process.

And yet, we were (and are) at peace.

We both felt it.  Strongly.  Too strong for words, really.  I can't explain that feeling other than to suggest that it was the strength of the prayers of others.  Here we were in the depth of the valley of the shadow of death and yet we felt as though things would be alright.

That we weren't alone.

It's true to say that we did have an incredible amount of support from our dear friends--to whom we continue to thank for their sacrifices, phone calls, gifts, Facebook messages, etc--but this knowledge of the presence of an Other had nothing to do with them.  We were simply aware that there was a God-centred light in the midst of the darkest hell we'd ever encountered.  Somehow, we knew that the world wasn't going to end--even though it could have been perceived as such...

And, in the midst of this, lies TIFF.

I confess that, to be honest, my passion for TIFF really seemed trivial in a time like this.  After all, family tragedy is much more important than seeing a whack of films in one week.  As things started to shake down, I did the only humane thing I could do:  I withdrew from my course and began selling my screening tickets.  I simply didn't believe that I should be able to participate in this activity.

In fact, were it not for the encouragement of my grace-filled my wife, I would not have attended any screenings at all.
_________________________________________________________________________________

Without question, writing out these feelings was really helpful for me.  It was important to gain a little perspective and I really did feel a sense of peace at the time.  It's interesting because, in some ways, I'm only now reflecting on the last year and realizing how damaged I truly was.  What's more, this only became more accentuated six months later when my beautiful wife and I suffered our second miscarriage.  (Trust me.  It would be really interesting to read a blog post during that time.  The second miscarriage really sent me into a downward spiral emotionally and spiritually.)

The pain of losing children (even those you've never met) is an unspeakable tragedy and I pray you never have to go through it.  Looking back, I can see how much I was clinging to my own abilities and whims.  I wanted to believe in some ways that I could control my life and that, if I worked hard enough, I could prevent this from happening again.  Shades of Anakin Skywalker in Episode II, I suppose.  (And, yes, I'm sorry that I just quoted the prequels...)

Today, I finally accepted that I can't.

Stripped of my trust in myself, I realize that all I am left with is Christ.  I believe that He weeps with me.  I believe that He walks with me.  I believe He is present with me.

I also believe that He doesn't owe me anything.

That's hard to admit... but it's true.  I cannot find safety in monuments to myself and, although I wholeheartedly believe in God's protection, I also believe that everybody suffers.  To be honest, I don't think I ever really accepted that.  As stupid as it sounds, suffering was something that happened to other people.

Now, I know otherwise.

I thank God that I have such an incredible wife and son for the incredible gifts that they are.  (Not to mention my family and church family as well.)  They are loving, patient and, more often than not, smarter than I am.  They truly are God's gift to me... and I know there will be more hard times ahead.  Still, in the midst of that, I also believe that God is actively engaged in our lives and that, although it doesn't always seem like it, He takes no pleasure in our suffering.  I am becoming more interested in seeking His voice again, despite the fact I might not always like what I find.

And that brings me back to TIFF.

To be honest, this year's TIFF experience could have been tainted by last year's trauma.  Let's face it.  Last year's pain is intrinsically linked to the festival in every possible way and could easily cause this year's experience to be haunted by the past.  Instead, however, I have remembered what it is that I am most passionate about the festival in the first place.

The truth is that the thing I enjoy most about TIFF is always the God-consciousness, community and conversations.  Over the years, God has provided opportunities to grapple with tough issues with people I respect--and, honestly, there's nothing I like better.  (Seriously.  I'm giddy just thinking about it.)  TIFF provides opportunity to wrestle with God's truth in ways that other things do not.  I can't explain it but it does... and I love it.  There's a dance between art and Scripture that takes place during this time.  On top of that, throw in a healthy community of others and I'm hooked.

In short, God is present at TIFF... and He let's me join in.

I never really know what I'm going to experience at TIFF.  This year's line up for me includes:
The Grand Seduction
Admittedly, this is an inflated number of films this year (easily my most) and anything can happen throughout the week.  Still, I am psyched to once again meet with God in unexpected ways.  After all, He's in town this weekend on the red carpet.

And, after a long and painful year, I think I'm finally ready to dance again.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Storming the Gates


“Would you like a pill?”

In a world broken by disease, hunger and lack of resources, it seems that attempted solutions are often token in nature. The above quote, taken from Neill Blomkamp’s highly anticipated sci-fi actioner, Elysium, is an illustration of a lack of consideration towards those who suffer. Spoken by a disinterested parole robot, the offer of a pill to sooth ex-con Max Da Costa’s (Matt Damon) nerves serves as a metaphor for a much deeper attitude that exists within the world.

Set in the 2154, Elysium reveals a world divided by financial barriers. While the wealthy enjoy life on Elysium, a space-station utopia orbiting the earth that offers unlimited resources, the remainder of the population are left to suffer amidst the planet’s rubble and disease. Living amongst the masses, Max is an ex-con who simply wants to make a fresh start with his life. However, after an industrial accident leaves Max with only a few days to live, he realizes that his only manner of survival is to get to Elysium so that he can make use of their health care technology.  As a result, Max is forced to revisit a life of crime so that he can earn his ‘ticket’. However, after the assigned ‘job’ goes awry, Max becomes a fugitive and must choose which path his life is going to take moving forward

Clearly influenced by the recent Occupy movement, Elysium begs the question of fairness when it comes to the distribution of resources. As the wealthy maintain their life of luxury orbiting the earth, the demand for proper health care continues to increase amongst the rest (and increasingly restless). Disease is rampant and hospitals are overrun. Violence and crime are everywhere. Still, Blomkamp wants his audience to sympathize with the people rather than sit in judgment of them.  Although Elysium’s earth has been ravaged by criminal activity, one recognizes that much of the behavior has been driven out of desperation rather than a desire to do evil. Here, the finger is pointed squarely at the ‘haves’, not the ‘have-nots’.

On the other hand, it’s also interesting to note that the majority of the ‘super-rich’ are not portrayed as particularly evil either. Instead, despite the fact that much of Elysium’s resources are produced on the backs of the rest of humanity, the wealthy merely seem to wish to turn a blind eye to what’s happening below. In other words, in a much more literal interpretation of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, the wealthy appear more concerned about preserving their own way of life rather than intentionally exploit those less fortunate. As a result, the wealthy remain content yet distant from the rest of humanity, ignoring the devastation that lies below.

Without question, this conversation elicits thoughts of Christ’s conversations about care for the less fortunate. Scripture references such as Matthew 25 command to feed and clothe the less fortunate or even Jesus’ seemingly endless healings of the sick and blind point to a much deeper spiritual calling for humanity. From the moment Jesus established the foundation of his Kingdom, He has called for us to live in a manner that brings healing through love rather than further pain and suffering.

Still, the spiritual conversation within Elysium also travels much deeper than a broad plea for social justice and also offers a powerful example of what is meant to take place during a journey of discipleship. One of the best examples of this comes through Max’s story. A low-level employee of Armadyne Corporation, Max’s life seems no different than anyone elses. Simply trying to survive, his life has little purpose or direction. Nevertheless, after he receives his exo-skelton and attempts his first ‘job’, things change dramatically. [MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD] After understanding the importance of his newly stolen ‘cargo’, Max begins to understand the impact that his life could have on the rest of the world. [SPOILERS END] In fact, in a fascinating Scriptural connection, Max’s associate even tells Max that he holds “the keys to the Kingdom”. Using this analogy, this direct reference to Matthew 16:19 suggests that Max suddenly has the ability to ‘bind and loose on earth and heaven’, placing a great deal of power and social responsibility upon him. As a result of this realization, Max’s journey begins to be reshaped as he wrestles with the questions of calling and personal responsibility as he moves forward with his life. Moreover, in drawing this comparison, Blomkamp also reminds the viewer that much of the responsibility for change lies on the viewer himself. Are we willing to help create change? Do we recognize that our lives have meaning in the world? In the same manner that Jesus calls for justice in His Kingdom, he also commands us to be active participants in what He wants to happen.

In the end, Elysium certainly delivers in the area of sci-fi action. However, director Neill Blomkamp also offers an intense—but grounded—metaphor for the damage that is left by selfishness and greed. In moments such as these, Elysium connects very deeply with the heart of Jesus and his Kingdom. Whereas Elysium speaks of a world divided by suffering, we are reminded that Christ invites us to a world healed by wholeness. As such, Elysium challenges us to decide whether we will seek to be an advocate for change on His behalf or remain silent.

After all, through Christ, we have the power to “override their whole system”.

Elysium
Starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley                         
Directed by Neill Blomkamp                                                
Rating: **** (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Political SciFi: Suffering (and Healing) in District 9


“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

If it’s true that history is told by the ‘winners’, what does it look like when we allow ourselves to hear the story of the ‘others’?

This question lies at the heart of District 9, a science fiction action film set against the backdrop of racially divided South Africa and the remarkable directorial debut from Neill Blomkamp (Elysium). Using pseudo-documentary style filmmaking, District 9 tells follows the relationship between the human race and group of aliens (derogatorily named ‘prawns’) who landed in Johannesburg in 1982.  After 28 years of confinement in District 9, a local government-enforced camp, the South African leadership decides that it’s time to relocate their ‘tenants’ to a new facility and hire Multinational United (MNU) to carry out the mission. 

Enter Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copely), an Afrikaner bureaucrat who is appointed to lead the camp relocation by serving the aliens with eviction notices.  Inexperienced but cocky, Wikus and the MNU forces raid the homes of their alien tenants with boyish glee, taking pleasure in their mistreatment. However, after being inadvertently sprayed by alien fluid, Wikus’ body slowly begins to change, taking on the form of a ‘prawn’ himself. As Wikus slowly mutates, he also starts to learn first-hand what life is like at the hands of the merciless MNU. With the transformation process accelerating and the MNU closing in, Wikus is forced to join forces with Christopher Johnson, a prawn who believes that there might be a cure for his situation.

Released in August 2009, District 9 entered into the hectic summer blockbuster market with very little fanfare or star-power.  (In fact, the only “name” in the promotional materials was the film’s producer Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films.) Written and directed by then-unknown filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, District 9 became an instant hit with critics and audiences, garnering 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Although the film takes the form of a sci-fi actioner, District 9 actually offers an unsettling (and honest?) look at Apartheid and it’s effect on South African culture.  (Incidentally, this theme should come as no surprise in that, having grown up in South Africa, this is likely something that would be close to Blomkamp’s heart.) What makes District 9 so unique however isn’t the subject matter but rather the manner with which it is handled. By focusing on Wikus’ journey, Blomkamp manages to actually reshape the perspective of his audience as well.  In other words, by opening the film with the story of Wikus and the MNU, Blomkamp invites sympathy for their reaction against a species that appears to be the aggressors. However, as Wikus becomes increasingly invested in the world of the ‘prawn’, Blomkamp is also able to challenge our assumptions, revealing an alternate story that exposes the nature of true evil.

What’s more, it’s also on this level that Wikus’ journey echoes the Christian narrative and, more specifically, the story of Jesus Himself. As Jesus willingly sacrificed his Divine nature to become human, he also entered into our story in a way that he hadn’t before. In doing so, he was able to understand the human experience in a different manner, even ‘empathizing in our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15). As a result, Jesus’ experience enabled him to offer his own life on our own behalf as the penalty for our sin. Similar to the manner in which Wikus’ life exemplifies what could be considered a moment of renewal for human-prawn relations, so too does Christ’s incarnation demonstrate hope to us spiritually by offering us new life.

Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that Wikus is actually a Christ figure.  (His self-absorbed and racist heart eliminates any possible comparisons on that level.)  However, because of his transformation and gradual assimilation into the world of the ‘prawn’, what follows is an incredible example of incarnation.  Although the experience is far from his own choice, Wikus’ chance encounter with alien fluid slowly opens his eyes to an alternate version of the narrative that he thought he knew.  By suffering at the hands of his military counterparts, Wikus begins to enter into the story of the alien population himself.  As a result, this experience eventually begins to challenge his beliefs about their culture, reshaping his own behavior as well. In a powerful example for the church, Wikus suffers with the oppressed and, potentially, may serve as an advocate on their behalf in the future. As a result, Wikus’ ‘plight’ becomes his greatest blessing—and, potentially, an opportunity for hope for the prawn culture.

In the end, District 9 finds an effective balance between sci-fi action and social commentary by drawing the audience into the story of an unknown culture. This invitation to suffer with those who suffer echoes the heart of Christ as He calls us to seek His Kingdom here on earth. What’s more, in doing so, Blomkamp also invites his audience to re-examine their own hearts and, potentially, offer a voice to those who have none.

Elysium will be released on August 9th, 2013.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Breaking the Bad


“Sometimes, in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.”
– Dr. Iris Hineman (Minority Report, 2002)

Why is it that, as a culture, we tend to expect in the inevitability of darkness?

It seems that, as our world dreams of its future, more often than not the picture is one of destruction and despair. For instance, in much of our science fiction storytelling, post-apocalyptic realities, common themes include worldwide corruption and oppressive regimes are common themes, especially in realm of film.  Through classic movies such as Blade Runner (often held as the standard for contemporary sci-fi), Serenity, The Matrix and many more, the future of our world is depicted as cold, disengaging and terrifying.  (Heck, even the Christian film industry has cashed in on this notion of apocalyptic reality through films like Left Behind and its subsequent sequels.)

Admittedly, there’s little argument that much of the intent behind science fiction is to offer a critique of our contemporary world and its issues.  For instance, there’s no question that Blomkamp’s District 9 and the highly anticipated Elysium serve as metaphors for larger, more immediate problems.  Still, it is interesting to note that the overarching theme of most science fiction films seems to be that the future is inevitably evil.  Sometimes that evil may be specified as the end result of greed (Elysium; In Time), over-reliance on technology (The Terminator, WALL-E) or war and oppression (The Hunger Games; Nineteen-Eighty Four).  Sometimes, as in the case with Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, that evil simply remains an ominous and ever-present darkness.  Whatever the depiction, there is certainly a sense of hopelessness that permeates the atmosphere in contemporary visions of the future.

The real question is why?

Is it the assumption that things are so bad now that they can only get worse? Or is it some deeper belief that an oncoming darkness is simply part of who we are and, as a result, inescapable? Whatever the reason, every possible scenario points to the realization that the world is not the way that it’s supposed to be and that, left unchecked, it’s only going to get worse.  As a Christian, I recognize this stain upon humanity as the destructive presence of sin and its effect on our world.  Without question, the sinfulness of man has left damage in virtually every area of life, manifesting itself in ways that range from corporate greed to human trafficking.  As we gaze into our history and see the carnage in our wake, is it any wonder that our expectation of the future would be any different?

Fortunately, science fiction stories also offer another common element… the hero who fights the system.  From Elysium’s Max DaCosta (Matt Damon) to Snake (Kurt Russell) in Escape from L.A., every sci-fi features at least one character who attempts to defy the social conventions.  Some, like The Matrix’s Neo, manage to break the system, bringing freedom and hope.  Some, as in the case of Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Blade Runner, are less successful.  However, in every scenario, there is always one to recognize that this way of life cannot go on in the same way.  Although the results vary from film to film, each sci-fi venture places its protagonist on a quest for hope. 

In a larger sense, this quest for freedom and newness connects deeply as well within the Christian faith which points to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the hope for humanity. (To be fair, that is not to say that every sci-fi hero is a Christ-figure.  Can you really accurately compare Jesus to Judge Dredd or even Iron Man’s Tony Stark?)  Through his humble sacrifice for humanity, Christ established his Kingdom in a way that offers hope in a world engulfed by darkness.  In other words, his life and ministry remind us that hope for the world is something tangible.  While many protagonists have been broken by the system in a way that causes them to rebel, Jesus himself is the very incarnation that things can—and were intended to be—different.  Because of who He is, we have hope.

With this in mind, it is important for us to recognize that sci-fi does offer us a window into the future, grim as that may appear to be.  As the ramifications of sin run rampant, science fiction films often remind us that our journey will drive us into further chaos if we continue along this path.  However, it is also crucial for us to realize that the God of the world is also building something new in its midst. Although it may appear that our culture lives in the heart of darkness, the light of His Kingdom is beginning to break through.

Even if Hollywood can’t always see it.

Elysium will be released on August 9th, 2013.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Monsters University


Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman                        By Steve Norton
Directed by Dan Scanlon                                            Rating: **** (out of 5)




In Monsters University, Disney’s beloved Mike and Sully want to take you back to school.

Really back to school.

Released 12 years after Monsters Inc. first introduced us to Mike and Sully, Monsters University transports us back many years before that to their school days. Releasing a prequel over a decade after the original charmed audiences is always a risky decision, especially for an animated film. Still, in Monsters University, director Dan Scanlon (Cars) manages to strike a balanced tone of comedy and heart that both honours its predecessor and explores new territory as well.

Having always dreamt of being a full-time scarer, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) enrolls in Monsters University (or MU), determined to study hard and prove to the world ‘what [he] can do’. It is here that he meets young James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a gifted slacker with a family legacy for scaring. Although we know them as best friends later in life, here the two monsters instantly dislike one another and quickly develop a rivalry to prove their scaring prowess. However, after an incident takes place that threatens their education, Mike and Sully decide (begrudgingly) to join local fraternity Oozma Kappa and take part in the Scare Games, a set of challenges designed to reveal Monsters University’s best scarers.

Although the film is certainly of the ‘college movie’ genre, Monsters University does have more to offer. At its heart, MU contains a positive message about the nature of community and the value of others.  Although each sorority seems to fall into different clich├ęs (i.e. the jocks, the sisterhood, the bullies), Mike, Sully and the rest of Oozma Kappa stand out for their distinct oddities. Far from the elite, the students of Oozma Kappa—or, significantly known as ‘OK’—appear (almost) blissfully unaware of their social deficiencies. (A two-headed monster where only one half is a dance major? A student with parental-attachment issues?) Unaware, that is, until Mike and Sully bring their ambitious dreams of being professional scarers into the fraternity. In doing so, the Oozma Kappas quickly find themselves in over their head as they attempt to compete with the MU’s best and brightest.  Nevertheless, as the film progresses, the boys from OK begin to discover the value of their inherent ‘oddness’. While watching professional scarers at work, Mike points out that “what makes them great is that they use their differences as their strengths.” In moments like this, the film recognizes not only the value of others and their differences but also that, when brought together in humility and purpose, they are able to accomplish greatness together as well.

Ideas such as this resonate deeply with the heart of Scripture when one understands that God Himself creates community. Beginning when Adam is told that it wasn’t ‘good for him to be alone’, God has continuously emphasized the importance of connectedness amidst difference. United in Christ and His heart for reconciliation, everyone is invited to find equality and healing. Similarly, the different abilities of each person are recognized as invaluable to one another, even offering special attention to the ‘outcasts’. For example, Paul writes that “God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” (1 Cor. 12:24b-25) Films like Monsters University exemplify this trait of the Kingdom effectively by recognizing that community starts around something that draws people together (in this case, Oozma Kappa and the Scare Games) but maximizes its impact when the individuals collectively allow themselves to shaped by it, especially when that unifier is Christ Himself.

Without question, Monsters University is a family comedy with heart. While not one of Pixar’s top films, it does manage to recapture glimmers of them at their best by getting beyond typical animated fare and tapping into something unexpected (especially towards the end). In Monsters Inc., it was always apparent that the relationship between Mike and Sully was always one of depth that had clearly been built over time by living together throughout the hardships.

Monsters University provides a window into how those types of friendships begin.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kal-El Among Other gods


“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Psalm 118:22)

With the much-anticipated Man of Steel hurtling towards us, there’s much to reflect upon regarding the value of Superman in our culture.  For example, as a Christ metaphor, Superman exhibits the characteristics of the Savior that our world needs.  His purity offers us something to aspire for.  His otherworldly strength and compassion demonstrates himself as one who will keep us safe from supernatural evil.  Though, despite the truth of all of these statements, there is still another important element that is less discussed.

The human race isn’t the only group that needs Superman.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Justice League.

Although the primary emphasis for Superman remains as a salvific force for the human race, he also remains a key figure in DC’s alliance of superheroes.  (In fact, Warner Bros. has gone on record by saying that the fate of the long-awaited Justice League film hinders on the success of Man of Steel.) Interestingly, however, exactly how central a role that may be is a subject of much debate. For years, despite being one of the founding members of the Justice League  (and, arguably, the most powerful), his worthiness as leader of this team of DC’s finest has been questioned openly amongst fans.  Having been accused of being a ‘boy scout’, Superman’s ‘small-town morals’ and relentless pursuit of truth often fly in opposition of other, more ‘progressive’ members of the team.

While Superman may be only one member of this very diverse group of heroes, the truth is that Justice League would be a very different team without him at the helm.  Could the team truly function properly if centered around Batman’s vigilante nature and moral ambiguity? Would the team remain as grounded if led by Green Lantern and his cockiness? The Flash’s immaturity and impulsiveness? (In some ways, a sound case can be made for Wonder Woman yet she seems to lack the charisma necessary.) Despite their many positives, all of these superhero legends contain very visible character flaws that hinder their leadership abilities.

Superman, however, exudes a character that creates an element of stability to a team that, if weak in leadership, could become volatile. For instance, his commitment to serving others and sacrificing himself to protect humanity reveals a God-like humility that allows him to recognize the value of others, despite their differences. As a result, he inspires the best in his fellow heroes, encouraging them to work together for the good of humanity instead of themselves. Similarly, his lack of compromise and unwavering moral centre helps call the Justice League to a higher ethical standard (one that, say, Batman has little interest in serving). In other words, by centering itself on Superman, the Justice League automatically develops a sense of moral accountability that it needs to lead benevolently. In fact, other than simply being unpopular in today’s ethically ambiguous cultural climate, one would be hard pressed to find any particularly glaring character flaw within the Son of Krypton.

And, it’s for this reason that Superman is the very cornerstone of the Justice League.

Historically, the ‘cornerstone’ refers to the first brick laid in the construction of a building’s foundation. The importance of this stone increases due to the fact that all other pieces are placed in reference to this one piece. In essence, this brick quickly becomes the basis of the entire foundation. Theologically, this principle has also been used in Scripture in reference to the household of God that was “built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Eph. 2:20; NIV) In Biblical examples like this, the author seeks to draw attention to the fact that Jesus is the foundation of our faith and the reference point that we build our lives upon. Without Jesus, the faith collapses.

In the realm of DC superheroes, however, there is little question that this mantle falls on Superman. Although fictitious, his role in the Justice League reveals the need for Christ-like influences that offer a foretaste of the Kingdom to those around us. In the same way that Superman sets the standard for all members of the Justice League that follow, so too does Christ becomes the very foundation of our faith, offering the example of Godly living.

And that is something everyone must build upon.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

42 and the Sermon of a Lifetime

'You're the sermon, Jackie.'

This is the message of Dodgers owner Branch Dickey (Harrison Ford) to a young and fiery Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in 42. Examining the early career of Robinson as he broke the colour barrier in the era of 'white baseball' in the late 1940s, 42 demonstrates the character and courage of a man who simply wanted to play baseball on equal footing with everyone else.

As a film, 42 turns out to be an inspirational, engaging piece that establishes Jackie as a man who is "strong enough not to fight back" when the evils of cultural oppression attempt to crush his spirit.  Admittedly, it's not a perfect film as pacing can be an issue and character development can be lacking at times.  Still, 42 offers us a picture of a man who found himself in a position to change his culture and takes the opportunity.  In terms of tone, as I expected, this is one of those films that makes you want to stand up and cheer.  Nevertheless, there was an element to the film that surprised me.

It was the clarity of their faith.

Interestingly enough, I have also heard the comment that the film doesn't accurately portray the power of their faith.  Scenes where Robinson calls forth his faith as the strength against adversity are in short supply.  (To be honest, most of the Christian conversation comes from Dickey himself so I do understand this complaint.)  As a result, arguing that the film appears shy on 'explicitly Christian' material could be considered accurate on one level.

Personally, however, I feel that to make this is to not fully realize the impact of this storytelling.  For instance, this film was not produced by Provident Films -- and nary a Kendrick brother was to be found.  No, this film was financed and produced by Legendary Pictures, the same company that's producing The Hangover Part III and 300: Rise of an Empire.  Yes, this is a decidedly non-Christian company telling a story that includes the importance of the faith of two men as they battle social injustice.  To be honest, the fact that the faith of both Dickey and Robinson has such an onscreen presence is remarkable -- and a testament to the respect that they wield in a secular society.  These are Christian men who really did something to change modern society and the power of their faith is acknowledged by non-Christians.  (Heck, the film was both written and directed by Brian Helgeland, the same man who wrote the screenplays for Nightmare on Elm Street 4, The Order, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.  Without any judgment against him personally -- and certainly no indication where he is spiritually -- I still find the authority that he gives to the power of Christ in one's life remarkable.)

How can we, as Christians, not celebrate that?

In the hands of a Christian production company (and writer?), the film would have indeed looked differently.  There would likely have been more openly spiritual discussion to be sure. However, assuming that Mr. Helgeland does not have such spiritual leanings--not to mention Legendary Pictures itself--42 demonstrates the power of one's faith in a way that is both humble and compelling.  Compared to a film like Walk the Line that muted the faith of Johnny Cash to almost an afterthought, 42 powerfully proclaims the truth that the Gospel transforms culture and brings healing.  Further, it reveals that, when Christians honour God in the world with courage and humility, they are noticed by others in a way that changes the landscape.

In essence, as Dickey points out, Robinson is the sermon.

Yes, it might have been nice to hear a Scripturally-grounded diatribe from Robinson speaking out against injustice. (Although Dickey's tirade against the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies moves distinctly in this direction.) However, 42 takes a decidedly different approach and, arguably, one that's symbolic of being far more effective.  The impact of both Robinson and Dickey's strong faith is demonstrated by the fact that even those that have limited spiritual interest had to ensure that it was woven into the fabric of the script.

And hey, it's a pretty good movie as well.

42
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford
Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland
*** 1/2 out of 5


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why SciFi Matters


(NOTE:  The following post has already appeared live at Hollywood Jesus.com.  However, in an effort to build content on my blog, I've decided to post some of my more general postings on Movio Dei.  I just thought it'd be a good way to continue the discussion.)


“…if all others accepted the lie that the Party imposed—all the records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future:  who controls the present, controls the past.’… ‘Reality control’, they called it...” (George Orwell, 1984, p87)

Taken from George Orwell’s most famous science fiction piece, 1984, this quote speaks directly against a world where the blurred lines between media and reality can wage war on the minds an the unsuspecting public. In it, Orwell argues that, by attempting to control the manner in which people understand the world through constant bombardment of imagery and propaganda, it is entirely plausible for the human race to lose their sense of self and have their needs and wants dictated by some other person or group. It’s a theme that resonates strongly in our constantly plugged-in and media saturated culture.

And it was written in 1949.

In truth, much of Orwell’s tale of rebellion stands to be believed in our current culture. Motifs such as the ‘Thought Police’ and ‘Big Brother’ speak to a world where the people constantly are being manipulated and can be viewed as metaphoric of a culture that prides itself on being fed constantly by media outlets. Every day, we allow our ‘likes’ to be monitored by faceless Facebook operatives, invite others to judge our activities on Twitter and YouTube, and watch CNN on our cell phones during the morning commute.  (Hey, we even have a popular reality show named after Big Brother…)

Now, this is not to point out anything particularly prophetic about Orwell’s work. (In fact, the book really makes the most sense once one considers that it was written immediately after Hitler’s use of propaganda to control the German public during World War II.) Although it is safe to say that there is truly something remarkable about science fiction itself. By using future landscapes, screenwriters and authors have often been able to tackle contemporary issues within their culture and speak about them in manner that seems more palatable in some way. Whether it’s the Cold-War paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the redefinition of humanity in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or the examination of genetic experimentation in Splice, science fiction films frequently explore the core questions that plague society but manage to keep their audience at a safe distance by placing them in an unrealistic setting.

In light of this, the depth of this style of filmmaking should be of extreme interest to us from a spiritual perspective as well.  As our culture wrestles with post-modern ideologies and political realities, one recognizes that these issues have profoundly spiritual implications as well. How does the church respond to the very real social injustices that are depicted in films like Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 or the Wachowskis’ The Matrix? Or the theological concepts in films such as James Cameron’s Avatar?

Let’s take Blomkamp’s latest directorial effort, Elysium, for example.
Taking place in 2159, this highly anticipated film depicts a world where two classes of people exist: the ultra-wealthy, who live on a utopian space station called Elysium, and the rest who reside on the overpopulated and desolate Earth.  Although the majority of Earth’s population is desperate to escape the violence of their home planet, they are refused entry into Elysium due to their aggressive anti-immigration laws. In an effort to bring equality to this system, Max (Matt Damon)—an ordinary guy in desperate need of Elysium’s resources—reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission that could also bring freedom to millions of Earth residents as well.
Featuring a sense of restlessness and rebellion at its heart, the story of Elysium feels as though it has been stripped from the political headlines as issues such as the Occupy Movement and global financial crisis gain huge press. However, Blomkamp seems to believe that his film is not merely about one particular movement but rather a larger state of cultural unrest. In a recent interview, Blomkamp addressed this claim when he said, “I think if there are topics that are just on people’s minds, things manifest into reality, the sort of global consciousness being aware… So separate from the 99% and the Occupy movement I was thinking about this [already]…” As such, regardless of whether or not the film is directly influenced by Occupy, Blomkamp argues that Elysium is tied to an idea that is socially engrained in contemporary culture.  The questions he’s asking are already being asked privately by others and he’s speaking up. Often in the case with sci-fi, art imitates life but then calls us to reflect and be different. As Christians, it’s essential for us to be aware of the issues that these types of films address and actively contribute both Kingdom values and actions to the global conversation. 

With this in mind, one can see that this spiritual and cultural connection isn’t limited only to Elysium.  Science fiction films never exist in a vacuum but rather connect deeply into the heart of the culture and time from which it is produced.  As we journey towards the release of Blomkamp’s Elysium (August 9th), Hollywood Jesus also plans to explore some of science fiction’s great political films and their spiritual implications.

To paraphrase Morpheus, let’s see exactly “how deep the rabbit hole goes”…

Monday, January 7, 2013

Not Another Top Ten List...

It's been a long time since I've posted here.

Too long, in fact.

Interestingly, my last post indicated an in-depth synopsis of TIFF 2012 was coming--and, believe me, it was intended.  I had a lot to say.  However, the week was tainted by a painful family tragedy that essentially killed my ability to think for a while.  I actually have a post that I began during that time that  explains a great deal.  Maybe I'll release it sometime.  (Besides which, my commitments to Hollywood Jesus have simply kept me too busy to revisit my personal site.)

Nonetheless, with the end of 2012 over and done, I've come up with the completely original idea of my Top 10 favourite films of the year.  I'm certain that this has never been done before and I'm even more sure that you will be amazed at the fact that ten films in a compiled list can speak so loudly.

Obviously, I'm kidding.  (In fact, the last thing the world needs is another Top 10 list.)

What's more, there are also huge holes in my comprehensive viewings right now.  The truth is that I've yet to see some of the most anticipated films of the year.  Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, et al. are some of the titles that I have yet to see and so, admittedly, this list is unfairly compiled at this time.  As such, there's still a chance this list could be changed.  Still, I think it's a solid exercise in reflection over the year.

Most Overrated:  The Amazing Spiderman -- Kudos to director Marc Webb for generating some fabulous chemistry between his leads (Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone) but his heart clearly lies in independent filmmaking.  Webb excels at developing characters and building emotional tension but that's just not enough for a tentpole superhero pic like this.  Action set-pieces were lacking and a relatively bland villain holds the film back from greatness.  Ironically though, it's not that this film is bad.  It's not.  It is, however, unnecessary.  I believe it was the Toronto Star that stated that the greatest enemy to this film was 'time'.  This feels accurate to me.  With the well-received Raimi Spiderman films so recently in our memory, it's hard to simply retread the same ground so soon.  Still, this is not to say it's terrible.  Simply overrated.  (Possible Alternate:  The Hunger Games.  Yeah, I said it.)

Most Underrated:  Cloud Atlas -- Time Magazine went on record as saying this was the worst film of the year, placing above films such as (I kid you not) One for the Money and John Carter.  I simply don't agree.  Yes, the film is dense, heavily layered and difficult to penetrate but the script offers so much to say about the human condition and the nature of our development that it doesn't deserve to be written off.  The problem is that the film requires effort to understand that most aren't willing to put into their viewing experience.  This doesn't mean it's a bad film.  Quite the contrary, I think.  It becomes more compelling.  Not in my Top Ten but certainly does not deserve what it's gotten.

Top 10 Favourites of 2012:
10)  Prometheus -- The most dangerous science fiction is that which has something powerful to say.  Of course, this also means that it should know what it is that it wants to say.  This is the most difficult challenge to Ridley Scott's Prometheus.  The sheer scope and effort is impressive and the issues that it raises is definitely worth the effort, especially spiritually.  As such, I loved the film personally.  It engaged me in a way that not a lot of other films did this year.  Nonetheless, the problem I found was that it also didn't really seem to know where it landed on these issues--or what type of movie it was.  (Horror? Philosophy piece? Sci-Fi?)  That's not so much a criticism as it is an observation.  It certainly made the film divisive.  For every person who loved the philosophy and felt the gore was excessive, there was someone who felt the opposite.  Nonetheless, I confess that it was one of my most beloved films of the year to be sure.

9)  Chronicle -- The 'found-footage' film is most definitely a fad--and an increasingly tiresome one at that.  With that in mind, it's refreshing to see a film that breathes some new life into the genre.  This 'little' film didn't get much fanfare when it came out but it really does deserve your attention.  If you're a fan of the superhero film (arguably, another tired genre at this stage), this vision may be of particular interest as it manages to ground the content in a way that's almost relatable.  The story of three young men who begin to experience superpowers after encountering an alien meteorite, Chronicle examines what happens when great power is thrust upon someone that isn't a "billionaire playboy philanthropist".        With the exception of the third act--that gets a little too big in some ways--the film keeps the men human, despite their superhero tendencies, and examines the motivations that one wrestles with when power is thrust upon them.

8)  Safety Not Guaranteed -- This little sci-fi/drama/comedy probably isn't on many people's radar when it comes to their 'best-of' lists.  In fact, I'm not even sure that I know anyone else that's seen it.  Based on a real-life situation, the film follows a crew of reporters investigating an out-of-the-ordinary ad placed in 1997 in Backwoods Home Magazine:  "WANTED:  Someone to go back in time with me...  Must bring own weapons.  Safety not guaranteed."  The film is both fun and engaging, while grappling with issues such as coming to grips with our past and healing.

7)  Much Ado About Nothing -- Admittedly, this is a bit of a cheat.  Not receiving a wide-release until June of 2013, my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend the world premiere at TIFF this past September.  Written, directed and scored by Joss Whedon, this modern day retelling of Shakespeare's play is nothing short of brilliant.  Not only is it genuinely funny and well-acted, it actually presents the material in a way that makes it accessible to the average viewer.  There's also an emphasis on light and dark that offers much to discuss afterwards as well.  What's most remarkable?  It was filmed in Whedon's home (!) over a mere two weeks (!!!) -- in fact, the entire production took a scant four weeks from script stage to completion.  It was, without a doubt, one of the best cinematic experiences I had all year.  June 7th, 2013 for wide release, btw...

6)  Les Miserables --  This is a film that hasn't appeared on any Top Ten lists that I've seen thus far.  I'm a little surprised by that.  Yes, I understand the criticisms--especially Tom Hoopers face-focused directing--but there is so much good in this film that it needs to be recognized.  Hathaway is an all-but lock on the Supporting Actress Oscar next month.  Jackman is solid as Jean Valjean.  Russell Crowe isn't horrible (as I expected he would be).  Even Bora... I mean Sacha Baron Cohen manages to do his job.  In addition, the themes of grace and redemption that penetrate the story are potentially life-changing as well.  Without question, the most moving cinematic experience I've had this year.

5)  The Avengers -- Many will be surprised how 'low' this is on my Top Ten.  Hear me out.  Absolutely shattering box office records left, right and centre, The Avengers was a fantastic superhero film with much to discuss theologically as well.  (Start with 1 Corinthians 12 and go from there...)  BUT... it's not a perfect film.  The first act drags a little and the third is a little 'super-epic' in some ways.  Don't get me wrong.  I love the film.  Without a doubt, I had a blast.  Still, as great as it is, I don't think it can be much higher on this list given the strength of the competition this year.

4)  The Dark Knight Rises -- This will forever be compared to The Avengers as if they're somehow incompatible.  In truth, they're very different films.  No, it doesn't quite live up to The Dark Knight but that's really a testament to Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker.  Nevertheless, Rises is one of the more intelligent films of the year--and that's saying a lot for a tentpole.  It has an incredibly ambitious scope to it both in scale and in its ethical themes.  No, it's not without it's problems.  However, I give it a higher rating than Avengers simply because it offered so much more than just being 'a ride'.

3)  Looper -- I don't think I can think of a film that surprised me more this year than Looper.  Yes, the premise looked intriguing and the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis gives it street cred... but I was not prepared for the film's quality and intensity.  The time travel genre has been done to death, making it extremely difficult to bring anything new to the genre.  Despite borrowing plot points from multiple sci-fi films, Looper manages to break the mold by weaving a story around deeper issues, rather than merely action set pieces.  Without flinching, Looper becomes a morality play that causes you to empathize with both points of view.  It's raw, gritty and simply excellent.

2)  Monsieur Lahzar -- Similar to Much Ado, this is also a bit of a cheat.  Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (Canada) this past year, it technically was released in 2011.  However, it didn't receive a wide release until April so I decided to count it.  In fact, my list would be incomplete without it.  Taking place in Montreal, this film tells the story of an immigrant substitute teacher who steps into a grade school classroom following the suicide of their homeroom teacher.  There is a strong sense of commitment to the broken while grappling with one's own brokenness as well.  Directed by the creator of Incendies, Lahzar is complex and moving in a way that most films simply do not accomplish.  Without question, one of the finest films that I've seen in a very long time.

1)  Argo -- In truth, I simply don't think I could select any other film than Argo as my number one film for 2012.  Yes, there are others I haven't seen but this was simply filmmaking at it's best.  I heard someone recently describe Affleck as a man who "has made three films but directs like he's made twenty".  I completely agree.  I honestly can't believe I'm saying this but Ben Affleck has quickly become one of our premiere storytellers.  By leaving behind films like "Daredevil" and "Sum of All Fears" and focusing on direction, Affleck has shown that he actually does better behind the camera than in front of it.  His acting has improved but, really, he shines in telling stories.  What's more with Exodus-ian themes of redemption and sacrifice (yes, with Affleck playing Moses), the film offers a great deal of subtext that is worth our time and effort.  Although I've yet to see Zero Dark Thirty, don't count this film out yet come Oscar time.

Honorable Mentions:  End of Watch; SkyfallThe Grey

What do you think?  Please feel free to make comments and share your favourite film experiences of the year as well.