Brave Sacrifices Accuracy for Romance

The movie Brave sacrifices accuracy for the sake of Romance
The movie Brave sacrifices accuracy for the sake of Romance

Though today we marry for “True Love”, that’s a relatively new concept. Throughout most of human history, people married to ensure a stable society. Pixar’s latest film, Brave, is a contemporary fairy tale.

Though Brave is set in pre-modern Scotland, its take on the purpose of marriage is thoroughly modern. Brave demonstrates how our attitude towards marriage has shifted.

In the pre-modern world, more than 90% of humans on the planet lived in small agrarian communities of fewer than 200 total persons. With child survival rates as low as 50% and life expectancy around 40, the very survival of the community depended on individuals marrying and procreating as quickly and often as possible. With such a small community, a person’s marital options were limited.Continue reading

Top 10 Posts of 2011

2011 was a big year for this blog. Here are my 10 most popular posts by number of visits. Okay, technically eleven, since there was a two-way tie for the 10 slot.

10. 26 New and Improved Reasons I Love My Wife

Click here for the list

What can I say? Everyone loves my wife. So in honor of her 26th birthday, I listed a few of the many reasons I love her. Obviously the masses agreed.

10. The Black Swan Review

Click here for my review

One of the craziest films of 2010, but also a great retelling of the Garden of Eden story. If you’ve never seen an Aronofsky film, prepare yourself. If you have, you have some inkling of the sort of crazy you’re in for.

9. Erasing Hell by Francis Chan Review

Click here for my review

An awful, half-hearted response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. It didn’t perform nearly as well for all kinds of reasons. My review was basically a call to save your money and skip this book.

8. The Fighter and The King’s Speech Reviews

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These two movies were basically the same exact story. What separated them out was the incredible acting from the entire casts. They transformed a standard underdog story into something pretty special.

7. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan Review

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One of the best books I’ve ever read, and one that really has its finger on the pulse of our collective consciousness right now. Absolutely outstanding writing, and well-deserving of the Pulitzer it won.

6. A Christian Response to Osama bin Laden’s Death

Click here for my take

The only piece of theological writing to crack my top 10, and again, not a big surprise. I was saddened by much of the celebrating I saw around bin Laden’s death. And while I understood it, I believe Christians are called to be better than that, especially when it comes to how we treat our enemies.

5. Why I Switched from a Nook to a Kindle

Click here for my analysis

A dated post since both Nook and Kindle have newer versions available. But I’m still sticking with my Kindle 3/Kindle Keyboard for the same reasons I listed in this post.

4. The Dark Knight Rises Previews

Click here for my take on the Prologue and the Trailer

No one is surprised that I’m pre-obsessed with this movie. But both of my write-ups on it so far have gotten more attention than most reviews I’ve done of movies that are already out.

3. The Dexter Season 6 Reviews

Click here to go to my review of episode one

Dexter took on God in Season 6, with some surprising results. Though I wasn’t wild about how they wrapped up all the themes they’d unpacked, the writers deserve some major kudos for this whole season. One of the best and most direct treatments of religion I’ve seen on secular television.

2. Love Wins by Rob Bell Review

Click here for my review

No surprise here – this was one of the most controversial books of the decade let alone last year. Dozens of times more ink has been spilt discussing this book than it took to write it. And one (relatively quick) read will show you why: Bell raises questions that need to be taken seriously.

1. 127 Hours Review

Click here for my review

I have no idea why my review of 127 Hours was by far my most viewed post. I did think it was the best film of 2010, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you really are missing out.

The Social Network

If I’d reviewed this film when I first saw it, my quest to review all the 2010 Best Picture nominees would be a lot further along. Here we go anyway… Oh yes, and spoiler alerts.

The Social Network's sinister movie poster, featuring Jesse Eisenberg as Mark ZuckerbergThe Social Network is David Fincher’s latest film (Se7en, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and is penned by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio 60). It chronicles the creation of Facebook (if you don’t know what Facebook is, then you’re probably either reading a printout of this review or you are an alien preparing an invasion and I don’t want to give you any more advantages than you clearly already have). The entire story is an adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, which he wrote relying mainly on Eduardo Saverin (played in the film by Andrew Garfield), Mark Zuckerberg’s best friend at Harvard, who in the present is one of two groups suing Zuckerberg for stealing Facebook. As such, you’d expect the film to be more critical of Zuckerberg, but it’s not. Even still, much has been made about how fictitious the Zuckerberg in the film actually is. Jesse Eisenberg didn’t ever meet Mark Zuckerberg. From all accounts, the awkward, anti-social misanthrope we see in the film is light-years from the warm, funny (and maybe still slightly awkward) Zuckerberg who actually runs Facebook.

Jesse Eisenberg (Mark Zuckerberg), Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker) and Andrew Garfield (Spiderman, I mean Eduado Saverin)Sorkin tells the story in flashbacks cut between deposition hearings with Zuckerberg and either Saverin or the Winklevoss twins – two hulking Harvard rowers who were seniors when sophomore Zuckerberg started the Facebook. Both Saverin and the Winklevoss twins claim that at some point Zuckerberg stole Facebook from them, so we are taken back to Harvard of 2002-2003 to see for ourselves. The twins claim to have came up with the original idea to make Facebook available only to select colleges through a dating website called Harvard Connect they contacted Zuckerberg to build for them. Saverin was the original CFO (and sole financier) of Facebook, and was tricked (though, according to the flim, legally tricked) into signing away his shares by Zuckerberg and Sean Parker (the Napster founder who had wormed his way into the Facebook inner circle).

The story itself is pretty straight forward and fun to watch. Sorkin’s dialogue brings the characters to life. His script keeps the characters from becoming parodies of themselves while allowing us to experience the thrill of watching underdog-nobody-dork Zuckerberg triumph over the nefarious Winklevi who clearly have everything – money, smarts and good looks to spare. But you don’t completely hate the twins and you can’t completely love Zuckerberg. Saverin is the betrayed friend while Parker is the self-destructive cool-kid whose too immature for his own good.

According to the film, Erica Albright should probably get some money too... If she hadn't dumped Zuckerberg, he never would've started the ball rolling on Facebook.As the movie poster  hints, the movie’s central theme is the false intimacy Facebook promises. The film opens with Zuckerberg getting dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright, in a bar and going home in a drunken pity party. His drive to become cool led him to put the entire college social experience online in the form of Facebook. The irony is that as the popularity of Facebook grew, Zuckerberg became more and more of a celebrity, but didn’t connect with anyone on a meaninful level. In fact, he grew futher and further apart from his best – and only – friend, Eduardo Saverin. The film ends with Zuckerberg alone in the deposition room refreshing Erica’s Facebook page, waiting to see if she’ll accept his friend request. Mark might have over 1,000,000 friends, but he’s completely alone.

The real question is this, though: is the film a commentary on the false intimacy social networking offers us, or on the false reality film offers? Because the real Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t bear much resemblance to the film at all. The real Mark Zuckerberg has had the same girlfriend since he founded Facebook, and everyone who knows him describes him as a warm, friendly person. So while The Social Network is an interesting parable about the dangers of false intimacy, we would do well to remember that film is just as fickle a mistress.

Bottom Line: It’s a fun, smart film. It’s a great commentary on relationships and remembering what’s important!

The Kids Are All Right

As with all my Film Reflections, watch out for spoilers.

Kids_credits_KCalifornian couple Nic and Jules have been together for twenty-something years. Nic is a doctor (the two met at college, when Jules came to the hospital where Nic was a resident), and Jules quit her job when the two had children.  We learn early on that they had their two children, Joni (18) and Laser (15), with the help of a sperm donor since they are not biologically compatible. Now that the kids are older, Jules is starting a new business – landscaping.

The film follows the family through the so-normal-it’s-dull growing pains of a 21st century family. Joni is leaving for college at the end of the summer, and is trying to figure out how to be her own person. Laser is friends with a guy who is a bully and leads Laser to make increasingly bad decisions. Both kids know that their ‘father’ is actually a sperm donor, and since Joni is 18, she makes contact. The kids meet Paul, a late-30s, never-married organic restaurant owner, and are instantly taken with him. He begins spending more and more time with the family, which causes problems…

Nic and Jules have been growing apart.  Nic is the quintessential micro-manager to Jules’ free spirit. Their lives and their marriage has become routine, so when Paul hires Jules to landscape the backyard of his newly purchased house, their inevitable affair is no surprise (again, so cliché it’s bland). The climax of the film showcases the inevitable implosion of the nuclear family, and ends on a positive note; even though the family is physically displaced by Joni’s departure for college, we get the sense that Nic and Jules and their kids are going to be all right.

Bland. Boring. The kids’ rebellion (the height of which is Joni riding a motorcycle with Paul, which Nic has expressly forbidden – gasp!) is boring. Nic and Jules’ marital problems are the stuff of stereotypes and sitcoms – two people who love each other have grown apart and are trying to figure out how to reconnect. Even Paul, the donor dad, is so banal as to be forgettable. He’s a basically nice guy who’s maybe still a little juvenile. Nothing about the story is especially compelling or memorable.

Oh, except for the fact that Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are lesbians. (The whole film in fact, from the excellent acting to well-written script, seem to pursue the banal and stereotypical precisely for this reason.) Nic and Jules’ sexuality is nearly an afterthought in the film. No one – not the kids, not Paul (Mark Ruffalo), no one! – thinks that Nic and Jules shouldn’t be married or have kids. No one thinks that Joni and Laser are going to grow up sexually deviant (Joni seems almost totally uninterested in sex, and Laser is grossed out when he discovers that his moms think he might be gay).

In fact, the film’s strongest argument is its most subtle: a person’s sexuality doesn’t define her (or him). Lesbian couples have the same problems as anyone else. Kids raised by same-sex couples are pretty much normal kids. In short, the film is arguing that gay people really are people too.

What’s probably most sad to me is that this film even needed to be made. Especially Evangelical Christians are notorious for demonizing gay and lesbian persons. In “discussions” of same-sex marriage, we often claim that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will destroy the fabric of heterosexual marriages (this while we allow our divorce rates to climb over 50%). The Kids Are All Right argues that a person’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether a marriage will be healthy, or for that matter whether children will be healthy. While it should go without saying, the film argues that gay and lesbian persons are just as capable of love and commitment – and no more susceptible to temptation – than a ‘normal’ heterosexual person.

While it should go without saying that gay persons are people too, fully human and no more defined by their sexual orientation than a heterosexual person, it doesn’t go without saying because we Christians need to hear and learn that so badly. Our marriages have problems because we’re people, not because someone’s gay. Our kids struggle because growing up is tough, not because of ‘the Gays’. The Kids Are All Right is trying to say, Hey everybody, can we all calm down a little bit and start talking about what we have in common instead of what makes us different?

The debate over same-sex marriage in this country is far from over. We would all do well to listen to this bland, boring film and reevaluate our own rhetoric. If we can’t engage those who disagree with us as whole persons, equal conversation partners, then our discussion cannot move forward.

Bottom Line: The film isn’t that interesting as a story; its power comes from the conversations it generates in the wake of its viewing.

Have you seen the film? What do you think of its stance on same-sex marriage and/or parenting?

Black Swan

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen Black Swan yet, consider yourself warned: there’re lots of spoilery bits ahead in this refraction!

The super-creepy Black-Swan-Nina doesn't make her apperance until the last few minutes of the film, and the wait is WORTH IT! Black Swan is the latest trippy thriller from Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Pi, Requiem for a Dream) and like most of his films, you’re lucky if you know what’s real and what’s not by the end.  What we’re promised in Black Swan is a fairly straightforward offering: young ballerina Nina Sayers (Golden Globe-winning Natalie Portman) wants the lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake, but her quest to gain – and keep – the role might cost her her sanity, or even her life.  It could easily have been an by-the-numbers sexy-thriller whose only real twist is its setting (that being the gritty, no-holds-barred world of professional ballet).

What we get instead is a profound exploration of the nature of perfection and the complex relationships surrounding innocence and art.

Continue reading

True Grit

Spoiler alerts! If you haven’t seen True Grit, you may want to shy away from this review, as it’s got quite a few spoilers (major and minor) in it. You have been warned…

True Grit PosterTrue Grit is the latest offering from the Cohen brothers (The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men), and it’s an adaptation of the same Charles Portis book as the 1969 film for which John Wayne won his Oscar. The film is a profound meditation on what vengeance, redemption and justice look like in a world without God.

True Grit opens on a dead body lying in the snow, while the old gospel song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” plays in the background. A 40-year old Mattie Ross tells us that the body is her father, and that when she was 14 years old, he was murdered by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). This, then, is the story of how Mattie (played at 14 by Hailee Steinfeld) avenges her father’s death. Mattie – who is quickly revealed to posses a bravery and self-assurance rare at any age – justifies her quest to her audience by claiming that

There’s consequences for everything we do in this world, one way an’ another.
Nothing’s free but the grace of God.

Mattie sees herself as God’s instrument of justice – justice in this case being Tom Chaney’s death. This conviction steels Mattie against the adult world she encounters: her bravery may in fact be the ignorance of the innocent. Mattie is convinced she lives in a world of black and white, where right is right and wrong is wrong, and where no one can escape the consequences of their actions. She pursues the outlaw Tom Chaney with the conviction of the righteous, telling her mother not to worry because

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
the creator of all things watches over me.”

Mattie knows that Chaney must die in order for her world to be right, and she is also well aware that human law may fail her. Thus she is willing become that instrument of divine judgment, delivering to Chaney the right and proper punishment not according to the laws of humanity, but the laws of God. When asked what she plans to do with her father’s gun, she states plainly,

I aim to kill Tom Chaney. If the Law fails to do so.

This is a child, an innocent, in an adult world. As she prepares to follow Chaney, Mattie dresses in her father’s clothes, tailoring them so that they’ll fit her well enough. Throughout the rest of the film, they serve as a reminder that she is a dove among serpents, a sheep among wolves.

Chaney has fled into the Indian Nations, so the local law will not pursue him; Mattie seeks out Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (the Duke’s role, now played masterfully by Jeff Bridges), the meanest U.S. Marshal around, to apprehend Chaney with her. Rooster is a drunk Civil War veteran who’s missing an eye and prefers killing men rather than trying to bring them in alive. But even Cogburn bends to the righteous will of little Mattie Ross. Mattie and Cogburn move steadily into the wild of Indian Territory and closer to the inexorable confrontation with Chaney (accompanied sporadically by Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LaBoeuf – pronounced ‘La Beef’).

Finally, Mattie stands atop a mountain, gun on Chaney, ready to enact vengeance, mete punishment and acquire justice. Even here, Mattie’s righteous self-assurance never wavers. Without batting an eye, Mattie demands,

“Tom Chaney, stand up,” and fires, killing him.

The force of Mattie’s shot, the very action of vengeance-taking, knocks her back into a deep cavern. She’s caught by a root, hanging upside down, struggling to get free. She reaches for a dead body on a ledge near her, wanting its holstered knife to cut herself free. But as she drags the body towards her, the ancient clothes tear away, revealing a brood of rattlesnakes hibernating in the corpse’s chest cavity. One of the snakes bites her hand, sentencing her to Death.

Finally the visual and thematic elements of the film congeal into some version of the Christian story. Mattie kills, and that action destroys her innocence. That sin casts her into a pit from which she cannot escape – in fact, every action only brings her closer to death until a snake bites her. Mattie’s Messiah comes in the form of Cogburn, who rappels down into the cave, sucks the poison out of Mattie’s hand and races her to a doctor.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) as he recognizes Mattie Ross. His identifying black mark is visible beneath his left eye.At the beginning of the film, Mattie claimed that,

There’s consequences for everything we do in this world,
one way an’ another. Nothing’s free but the grace of God.

Certainly this is true for the characters that inhabit True Grit, and the consequences are born on their bodies. Rooster Cogburn is clearly a grey character, and is missing an eye. LaBoeuf nearly bites off his tongue and speaks with an impediment for the rest of the film. Chaney has a black blemish under his eye – his defining mark in the film. A dentist buys a dead body, removes the teeth and offers to sell the body to Mattie and Cogburn. An outlaw has his fingers cut off by another outlaw just before Cogburn shoots him in the face, prefiguring Chaney’s blemish. As the film closes, we see that Mattie Ross has borne the consequences of her vengeance as well – the snakebite cost her her left arm.

Mattie is no longer a dove; she has become a wolf.

Imperfect vengeance and incomplete salvation seem to be the best characters in the world of True Grit can hope for. While Mattie gives lip-service to God’s grace, it’s nowhere to be found in this movie. Justice only comes to those who are strong enough to take it. And the best savior they can hope for is half-blind and drunk. All-in-all, it’s a far cry from the promise in the film’s theme-song.

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Refrain: Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Bottom Line: The film is typical Cohen Brother brilliance. Everything is spot-on, from the actors to the sets and costumes to the score. A+, all around. Go see it. And please let me know what you think.

Film Review: Toy Story 3

Go see this.  Right now.  Why are you still here?It’s become trite to say Pixar can’t make a bad film.  So it’s probably no surprise to anybody that Toy Story 3 is great.  But words really do not do this film justice.  Pixar has demonstrated that its films are starting to mature (remember UP?), and in this regard, TS3 follows suit.  Andy is off to college, the toys haven’t been played with in years and the question is raised: what happens now?  The toys are adrift – if Andy doesn’t need them anymore, what is their purpose?  What does it mean to move on in our lives?  How do transitions change what it means to be a family or community?  Can we learn to forgive, or will we become angry and bitter?

TS3 dives head-long into these issues.  The toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare; it seems at first to be a toy’s paradise, but dark secrets smolder just beneath the surface.  Can the toys escape and make it back to Andy’s house before he leaves for college?  Do they even want to escape?

Meet the new inhabitant of my nightmares.The story in and of itself is beautiful, gripping, hilarious and tragic.   Were this all the film gave us it would still be an incredible viewing experience.  But we get to travel with the toys as they learn what it means to move on, to change and, yes, to outgrow our childhoods.  We learn how important it is to have a purpose and the incomparable power of a community working together.  We see the beauty of friendship and the promise of redemption.  We laugh till our sides hurt and shriek in horror at Big Baby.

I understand that kids will probably love this movie, but don’t kid yourself.  Pixar made this film for adults.  Not because it’s filled with innuendo (::ahem:: Shrek) but because the toys’ journey is the journey of the child growing up.  The student leaving for college.  The parent saying goodbye.  The mentor passing on a legacy.  These are adult journeys that Pixar has treated with the utmost respect and grace.  And somehow they’ve managed to do so while making you laugh so hard you’ll pee your pants if you’re not careful.

Bottom line: TS3 is enjoyable on every level. Go see it. But brush up on your Spanish first.

Trust me on that last part.