1917 And The Wages of War

THE SKINNY

Story (from IMDb):April 6th, 1917. As a regiment assembles to wage war deep in enemy territory, two soldiers are assigned to race against time and deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Themes: war, family, heroism, the cost of victory, perseverance

Age Appropriateness: (Rated R) Teen (13-18) and up (Deals with the very hard realities and affects of war/death/suffering).

MY TAKE:

I really liked this movie.

As many of you probably already know, what makes this WWI period movie stand out from others is how the film has been shot in a way to make it appear like it’s nearly one long take. The director of the film claims in interviews that this was done largely to ratchet up the tension (make the audience feel like there is a real ticking clock), and force the audience to really stick with the characters (making you feel for them). I think the film successfully does both of these things really well.

But what I felt the style of filming did most, was add another character to the movie. The surroundings… the location… the sets…. almost became a character itself. In many films, between the constant cuts between individuals, perspectives, wide shots, and jumping to different characters doing different things, often the location the characters are in become little more than backdrops in the frame. With the style used in 1917, I couldn’t help but take in the surroundings while following the characters since there weren’t any perceivable cuts. The places the characters walk, crawl, or run through become more significant, more real, and more important. And using this style in a war movie… I found particularly impactful.

War leaves a giant mark in its wake. Whether the movie lingering on cramped trenches, treacherous no man’s lands, leveled countrysides, or decimated cities, you couldn’t help but notice how war had an affect on everything: homes, buildings, roads, farms, and even Forrests and rivers. And as you saw how war damaged everything it touched, it became even harder not to notice how war was damaging every person it touched too (sometimes in major ways and sometimes just subtly). The bleak landscape also made the acts of compassion in the movie (both the compassion of our main characters and that of characters we only see briefly in the background) stand out even more.

I really liked this movie. It was one of those movies that I just had to sit with for a while at the end. It made me think about how terrible war is. It made me think about how hard it would be to even know what it meant to “do good” in such a place. And while it in no way compares to the horror of war, it made me think of the struggles we all face today trying to be do right in the often broken and sinful world we live.

1917-Movie

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Knives Out and the Sliding Scale of Goodness

THE SKINNY
Story (from IMDb): A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Themes: family, keeping secrets, kindness, comparison between the beliefs we hold and how we put them in action (or don’t)

Age Appropriateness: (Rated PG-13) Teen (13-18) and up (Deals with adult themes like murder, drug use, language, and some sexual discourse. But even more so, because of the pace and story younger kids may easily lose interest).

MY TAKE:
Knives Out was probable the movie I enjoyed watching the most this last year. The movie plays like a classic “parlor-who-done-it.” You are introduced to the family of suspects early on, you get to slowly uncover clues, and at the end you get that wonderful moment where the incredible detective walks through “what really happened.” The movie is also done mostly “Columbo style.” You are shown who most likely committed the crime very early on and most of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the most likely murderer and detective. The very early twist is that the Rian Johnson (screen writer and director) works hard to make you really like the “murderer.” I found myself oscillating for most of the movie between (a) hoping that it would turn out that the individual didn’t actually commit the crime and (b) hoping that the detective wouldn’t figure it out if they did.

(major spoilers ahead)

It is a real trick to get an audience to root for the person who we are told very on in the movie is a murderer. And I think Johnson tries to get us on Marta Cabrera’s side through 3 very affective techniques. First, he makes the murder completely accidental (making the situation such so that Marta can’t confess). Then Johnson makes the other characters so unlikable that you can’t help but root for Marta. Then finally, Johnson sprinkles in a good deal of “Pavlov dog.” I lost count on how many times other characters in the movie told me in one way or another that Marta was a good person. How can I not like Marta if everyone keeps telling me how good she is?

Let me tell you, these strategies totally worked for me. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I completely rooted for Marta. But as I’ve spent time really reflecting on the movie, I keep finding myself wondering…. how good was Marta really? Marta lies and sides steps the truth all over the place (really challenging for someone suffering from Emetophobia, getting physically sick every time she lies), she hides evidence from police, partners with the morally ambiguous black sheep of the family, drives dangerously in a car chase, and seeks to pay off a blackmailer. And she does it all this so she can protect a mother who is in the country illegally and keep a fortune that she deserves no more than anyone else in the story. Is Marta actually a good person?

I wonder if it is so easy to buy into Marta being good because Johnson uses a sliding scale sort of understanding of morality that most of us (at least in some small part of our hearts) believe in. People often think they aren’t that bad because they have that one uncle (or other family member) who is way worse. But that uncle has a neighbor who is worse than them and that neighbor has a coworker worse than them and so on. I wonder if we could somehow scientifically measure how “bad” everyone in the world was and then put the 2 absolutely worse people in the same room together, that after they spent some time together, they would both leave muttering, “I knew it, at least I’m not as bad as that guy.” It is so easy for us to look around and at the very least find someone we believe is worse than us because we convince ourselves that that their sins are worse than ours.

Is Marta good? Well, she doesn’t seem as bad in some of the same ways that others in the movie are. But does that make her good? And when stuck in a couple really tight spots she doesn’t do the MOST reprehensible things. But does that make her good? Not really… it just makes her not repugnant. Is Marta good? No. But neither are the rest of us.

I’ve seen a quote going around on Facebook recently possibly from John Alan Turner. The quote reads, “It’s hard to convince people that a God they can’t see loves them, when a church they can see doesn’t seem to like them.” I totally agree with the quote… but I’m not sure I agree with it for the same reason many other’s might. When I read that quote, what I realize is just how much I am part of the problem. Let me be honest for a minute, when I really think about it there is not a single person on this planet that I have spent a whole lot of time with that I’ve actually liked ALL the time. How I am going to show God’s love when I don’t ALWAYS like anyone?

The church is full of people who aren’t ALL that great ALL the time. In fact, I would argue that this statement probably includes every single person in the church. It’s always going to be hard for the church to convince people of God’s love, because none of us are able to share it with everyone, when they need it, all the time. Most of us may be more good than that one crazy uncle most of the time, but that doesn’t make us “good” people. Thank goodness we have a Savior.

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Cats CGI Tails, Tales, and Tolkien

On Christmas day, one of my family’s traditions is to see a movie together. The last couple years we have gone to see musical films. Two years ago, it was The Greatest Showman. Last year we saw the new Mary Poppins movie. So of course, this year we just had to go see the movie… Cats.

I have never seen a stage production of Cats. In fact, all I knew about the musical was that a lot TV satire seem to make fun of the production. And after seeing the movie Cats, I feel like I can make 2 general comments. First, I can see why many people don’t enjoy the production. I believe that in one crucial way, Cats is similar to the White Christmas. Neither have much of a story line and what little story line there exists seems to be there to push forward more opportunities for individuals or groups to showcase their talent in singing and/or dancing. Cats like White Christmas, is less about the story and more about the spectacle, the showcase, and the presentation. This leads me to my second general thought. I bet that the stage production of Cats, is an amazing spectacle. I bet it is an incredible thing to watch.

I didn’t enjoy the movie Cats nearly as much as I bet I would enjoy a live production. Like many reviewers of the film, I had a problem with the CGI in Cats. I didn’t think that the special effects were bad. I actually believe that the tails, and ears, and CGI cat outfits were kind of neat. The problem was that all that CGI was always right there in your face and it doesn’t even try to convince you that you are looking at a real cat. This for me made the spectacle of the movie I was watching seem less spectacular. As people sang, I found myself wondering, how was this song digitally improved? As people danced, I wondered how many edits were made and how much it had been “modified” in post production. The CGI could always been seen, and it made me wonder how much more of the movie was fake, ultimately making the spectacle seemed less impressive to me.

I am not usually against CGI or special effects. I usually am very forgiving with these things if they help further the plot of a story. But apparently for me at least, if there is little to no story, CGI actually becomes very distracting.

All this thinking about the ways I critique movies changing based on how good or compelling a story is, made me reflect a little on J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, creator of The Lord of the Rings, had a very high view of story. He believed that one of the most important things that human beings could do was tell stories. As a Christian, Tolkien argued that our entire universe could be described as one giant story, created by the Word of God. Tolkien is quoted saying that “fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” We desire to hear and tell stories because we are made in the image of the Master Storyteller, God. In The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkein And Their Circle, Colin Duriez writes that Tolkien believed that a good fictional story helped readers see their own world through a restored vision and allowed them to “…escape from the prison of narrow and distorted views of life and meaning.” Further, Tolkien believed that the greatest stories we could tell also point readers to the greatest story, Jesus. Duriez writes that for Tolkien the Gospels, “… had all the structural features of a fairy tale, myth, or great story, and, in addition, it was true in actual human history- the greatest storyteller of all had entered his own story.”

I wonder what people would have thought if Cats had a great story? If it had been the kind of story that J.R.R. Tolkien describes above, would critics been as annoyed with all the CGI waving tails? But because Cats is not a great story, but rather is supposed to be a big flashy show of talent, I wonder if maybe those CGI tails blurred too many people’s ability (including mine) from seeing all the talent being displayed behind those tails…. or do I mean to say it kept us from seeing all that talent in front of the tails?

Cats

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Crawl, Alligators, & True Fear

THE SKINNY
Story (from IMDb): A young woman, while attempting to save her father during a category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Themes: family, inner strength, dealing with the dysfunction of your family, alligators in hurricanes are dangerous.

Age Appropriateness: (Rated R) Adult (18+ due to language, extreme/stressful/scary situations, intent to scare, and gruesome/ violent images).

MY TAKE (minor spoilers ahead):
To really talk honestly about the movie Crawl, I feel like I need to tell 2 personal stories…

Story 1: I am not originally from the Carolinas. I still remember my first summer here. My family had gotten a new puppy, and on my day off I took him to the South Carolina Coast. The very first picture I took on my phone from this trip was of a sign by the fresh water pond near the beach that warned us to stay away because there might be alligators in the water. The sign had a picture of a stick figure alligator coming out of the water and taking a bite out of a stick figure human. My first though was, “WHAT!?!! Where have I moved to!?!”

Story 2: Later at a conference in Lakeland, Florida, I had the opportunity to go to Circle B Bar Reserve. A nature reserve along Lake Hancock. There were a lot of interesting animals to see and a lot of alligators just “hanging around.” Everything was going fine… until I was standing along the shore of the lake, taking in the sights, and a boat zoomed by. The boat created a fairly large wave wake, the water came into shore, and then it receded. As it receded, suddenly it was revealed to me that I was standing 10 feet away from several REALLY large alligators. They had been there the whole time. I just hadn’t known.

Blame it on the fact that I have not lived near alligators or the fact that I don’t like surprises. But whatever the reason… it is a fact… alligators freak me out.

The movie Crawl freaked me out. Now I’m not saying the movie is good. There are plenty of times that the movie felt like a B level horror movie (people making stupid decisions and getting murdered because of those decisions, “creatures” (in this case alligators) being way too intelligent/ powerful, extra characters appearing completely out of nowhere so they can become monster chow, etc.). There is actually a couple scenes in the movie when our main characters, father and daughter, decide that this would be a good time to talk really loudly through the details of their family issues. And I found myself thinking, “Who would have this conversation now? Just hug each other and say you love each other! You are ABOUT TO BE EATEN BY ALLIGATORS ALREADY!!!”

But despite all this, Crawl freaked me out. I’ve read that the budget of the movie was only about 17 million. But with this small amount of money I thought a very tense movie with fairly believable special effect alligators was created. Just like my experience in Lakeland, the movie was really good and long quiet pauses with alligators suddenly appearing or not appearing at their whim (rather than my expectations). But then again… alligators really freak me out.

And isn’t that the case with all horror movies. So often, the degree to which a horror movie works depends largely on whether you find the premise scary. Sure every scary movie is going to get you with some of their sudden “jump” scares, but a movie with a scary clown or ghost is going to be scariest to someone who is sort of scared of clowns or ghosts.

Looking around at our world today, I sometimes wonder how much of people’s decisions and actions are based on fear. In Family System Psychological theory there is this idea that “anxiety” is the root problem in most dysfunctional dynamics between people. People’s anxieties cause them to go into fight or flight mode (just like characters in a horror movie), and the things they say and do usually hurt others or themselves. And what is anxiety other than fear? I wonder, is it fear that is behind so many of the mass shootings today? Is it fear that is interwoven with all the angry confrontations between politicians and those who are more conservative or liberal? Is it fear that is at the heart of the racism that is still evident today? Is it fear that causes so many to refuse to listen to others, to try and “shout” over others online, and demand “safe spaces” (places where they will only hear others who think and speak like they do)? In the United States, is fear one of our biggest problems?

I know in the movie Crawl, it is my fear of alligators that made an imperfect movie so incredibly effective. But I find myself going back and thinking about one of those ridiculous scenes between father and daughter. The daughter explains (at a very inappropriate time because of all the alligators) that she isn’t swimming fast enough on her college swim team. The dad’s response (also bad timing…. due to the gators), is that she just has to get out of her head and be the fierce competitor that she already really is. It makes me wonder, how much would our world change, if more of us more often would just get out of our own heads and stop letting fear be our guide.

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Spider-Man Far From Home & Letting the Young be Young

THE SKINNY
Story (from IMDb): Following the events of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), Spider-Man must step up to take on new threats in a world that has changed forever.

Themes: finding one’s place and exploring what it looks like to grow into the shoes of your mentor.

Age Appropriateness: (Rated PG-13) Middle Childhood (7-10) and up [lighthearted with some violence and language. Movie deals with early teen romance with lots of talk and awkwardness about being near the one you “like,” hand-holding, first kisses, etc.].

MY TAKE: I thought “Spider-Man Far From Home” was great! While I liked “Spider-Man Homecoming,” that film definitely felt like a teen coming of age movie first and superhero film second. This second installment felt much more balanced to me. In fact, with the back and forth between action and Peter Parker teen drama, I seemed organized a little like a miniseries of 6 comics. While I felt the big bad guy reveal was a little clunky (an extended monologue all about “look what I doing” said only for the sake of us viewers), overall I felt myself having a really good time. When Peter was dealing with teenage stuff I was left wanting more and when Spider-Man did Spider-Man stuff I was left wanting more. Overall I thought the movie was well balanced.

(Small spoiler ahead)

As I watched this movie I was happily surprised with how well it displayed the teen romance between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. In the early 2000’s when I was a youth director, I remember reading a book by Chap Clark called, “Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers.” Clark did research at Crescenta Valley High School in north Los Angeles County to explore what life was really like for the typical high school student. Clark’s book was challenging, arguing that we are created a difficult world for our teens. Movies, TV, and music often glorify the teen years and many adults end up trying to relive their own childhoods through their children and the children they work with. Youth are taught in many ways that their teenage years should be the best of their lives, but the adults in their lives abandon them to navigate those uncertain teen waters alone as the grown ups pursue their own interests.

Fortunately, I think some things have changed for the better in the last 12 years or so. But even still, when watching many high school students depicted on TV and in movies, there still seems to be many examples of teens navigating very adult/complex  problems with absent or clueless parents, portrayed by actors who look way older than a teen.

And this goes back to how much I appreciated the relationship between Parker and Mary Jane. It was awkward. It was sweet. And even the “big” ending kiss looked a lot more like how one would expect a first kiss. The movie let the “kids” be kids. And for all Parker’s bravery and desire to do good, it was fun watching a high school do the kinds of things you would imagine an awkward and immature high schooler might do. If a fellow student gets a compromising picture of you and threatens to post it, what would you do? If you could, would you send a killer drone after them? I wouldn’t… but I totally bought the fact that Parker might. And when Parker and Mary Jane hold hands it seemed convincing that there would be much more nervousness showing than electricity. Maybe it was because “Avenger’s End Game” was so dark or maybe it’s because we live in a world full of sex, meanness, hurt, and brokenness (sin actually). Whatever the reason, watching “Far From Home” with my 12 year old just felt nice…

Spider-Man-Far-From-Home-Zendaya-Red-Hair

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Yesterday & The Consequences of Lying

THE SKINNY
Story (from IMDb): A struggling musician realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.

Themes: Normal Romantic Comedy “Will they/Won’t They” theme. Also there is a very slight and breezy examination of what the purpose of life is and the ethical dilemma of creative theft.

Age Appropriateness: (Rated PG-13) Teen (13-18) and up [Just a little language and some drug references. However younger children may be bored by the pace and themes of the film].

MY TAKE (major spoilers ahead):
I think “Yesterday” would make a great “date movie.” It is a classic somewhat predictable romantic comedy that is legitimately funny in places. However, I think to fully get behind the movie, you need to buy the premise (or at least for the sake of the movie pretend to accept it). The premise is that the music of the Beatles is both transcendent and foundational to humanity. The movie’s central question (outside the romantic comedy theme) is: if you were a struggling artist and suddenly were the only one to know the music of the Beatles (A) Would you share the music (since the world NEEDs it)? And (B) would you be willing to pretend you wrote the music to get your own career kickstarted? The movie never even entertains the third option (C) would anyone care about the music of the Beatles if the music was taken out of its historical context?
At first, I thought I might write about this theme for the remainder of the blog (maybe I would have titled this post- “Would the Music of the Beatles be the Beatles if the Beatles weren’t the Beatles when they were the Beatles?”). I quickly realized that I don’t know enough about music to say much on this topic. But as I reflected more on “Yesterday,” I realized I didn’t find this theme nearly as interested as another. I kept finding myself thinking about the end of the film.

MAJOR SPOILER TIME!!!

At the end of the film, Jack (the struggling artist), meets one of the Beatles (who in this world never was a Beatle). The Beatle tells Jack that the most important things in life are (1) to love and (2) to tell the truth as much as possible. Jack goes on the admit on stage that none of the music he has been singing is his, Jack goes on to make all the songs free to the public, and then goes off to pursue the love of his life. In the epilogue of the movie we find Jack living in his hometown, teaching, married with kids, and happy. Apparently, there is some merit for Jack to seek the goals of (a) loving and (b) telling the truth as much as possible.

But here’s the thing. I just don’t buy this epilogue at all. The movie postulates that the Beatles music is transcendent. By singing Beatles songs, Jack became an overnight sensation simply due to the power of his approximation of the original Beatles’ lyrics and music. When Jack admits that the music was actually the Beatles and names the true authors, the movie seems to imply that no one would then go look up those names and the band (that does not exist in this world). And once people found out that the Beatles do not exist in this world, wouldn’t they just assume that Jack was lying and was the creator? I don’t think Jack could have returned to his hometown and to a “quiet” life. I think he would be bugged ALL THE TIME, by songwriters and aspiring artists and people moved by the music of the Beatles, who wanted to be near this humble and lying music genius & guru behind that music. I think Jack and his family would need to go into hiding, not live an “ordinary life” in his hometown.

I say all this because I think as a society, we know that people lie all the time. People exaggerate when they talk about the fish they catch, they often lie to themselves when they try to live with the mistakes they’ve made, they lie to their loved ones about how their loved ones look sometimes when trying to be nice, they lie when they are trying to tell stories from their past and forget some of the details. Some of us tell big lies for nefarious reasons… but most of us tell little lies all the time simply to fill in details, be nice, or cover our mistakes a little. In a world full of liars, I think the conclusion most would come to in “Yesterday” is that Jack was lying about not being the creator of all that Beatles music.

But for me the implausibility of the epilogue of the movie just seems to reinforce the overall message which I like… that a good life consists of loving and telling the truth as much as possible. Over the years, I’ve heard lots of sermons that talk about what the Bible teaches about lying. Often these sermons get stuck in the weeds. Are little white lies bad? What about lies that help someone (like hiding a Jew during the Holocaust)? What about lies that spare others feelings? When does a little nice lie become a big bad one? If we do live in a world full of lying and liars, who can be believed?

The good news on this topic that I find in my faith tradition, is that this legalistic debate is not something we have to fall into. We simply accept the grace of God that comes through Christ and try to follow Jesus by loving God and others. And that’s where I like the message of this movie. Maybe we can keep things simple, just understanding that one way we can love others is to “tell the truth as often as we can.”

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Godzilla King of Monsters & Being Insignificant

Godzilla
THE SKINNY
Story (from IMDb): The crypto-zoological agency Monarch faces off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

Themes: This movie looks at the themes of justice and the environment. It attempts to wrestle with when tje “the ends justify the means?”

Age Appropriateness: (Rated PG-13) Middle Childhood (11-12) and up [lots of people are killed (by mercenaries and Giant Monsters). Aside from a few deaths most seem pretty inconsequential to most others in the movie].

MY TAKE (small spoilers ahead). I did not enjoy the movie Godzilla King of Monsters. I think the movie is guilty of a lot of things… 3 of the main ones are (1) letting characters make illogical decision after illogical decision; (2) having the “bad guy’s” plan have more if’s and maybe’s and holes than I’ve seen in a long time, and (3) including a ludicrous ending.

But I think the biggest problem with this Godzilla movie is one that plagues a lot of movies where big creatures are destroying cities. The bigger the disaster (giant robots, giant monsters, people or things with giant powers, etc.), the more insignificant the average person is. The mistake often with these kind of movies is when we spend a whole lot of time with the insignificant people doing fairly insignificant things while the giant robots, giant monsters, or things with giant powers are doing incredible stuff that you wish the movie was showing a whole lot more of.

Godzilla King of Monsters, has a huge human cast of insignificant people largely doing insignificant things. Occasionally one shines heroically, more often they fail stupidly/miserably, and nearly always I found myself not caring at all. Generally, I just found myself wishing that they showed more of the monsters doing their monstrous stuff. There is a moment toward the climax of the movie, when one of the main insignificant people exclaims that this time when Godzilla attacks King Ghidorah “we” (the U.S. military and Monarch) will be going with him. I snorted, thinking, “So what?” Just so you know in the movie, “we” ended up giving Godzilla exactly how much help you would imagine “we” could give.

Usually it’s not much fun spending most of a BIG cataclysmic movie with insignificant tiny people. And yet, I think that the same can be said about followers of Christ. So often we like to hear about big conversation stories, or hear about (or even be a part of) ministries that are doing giant things- being significant by changing people’s hearts or making the world a better place. But most of our own stories are not nearly that exciting. Few of us are writing the next Christian bestseller or changing the world as a missionary. Most of us are just loving a few, giving some, and helping a little as we go about our daily lives.

Most of our lives appear FAR more insignificant than the Monarch Agency in Godzilla (and that’s saying something). Is it possible that too often we don’t realize that God is up to some great things in our ordinary, routine, day to day lives. In the same way I am sometimes guilty of rubbernecking a car accident I pass on the road (and then end up contributing to the huge back up behind me), does my searching for significance around me sometimes blind me to what God is actually doing in my ordinary life (making me part of the problem)? Is it my own fault that I found the human characters in Godzilla, uninteresting? Do I need to work harder at learning how to enjoy the ordinary?

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