Night Moves (2014)

night_moves_ver3_xlgDirector Kelly Reichardt delivers an intriguing ecoterrorism thriller with Night Moves. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are done protesting. They are ready to make, not just a statement, but a strong statement. They chose to blow up a dam.

The film’s first movement follows trio pull off elaborate con acts to acquire the materials needed to fulfill the plan. The second movement unfolds the carrying out of the event and the following ramifications. The third, and final, movement of the film chronicles the down fall of Josh.

The portrayal of Josh is not what we typically see from Eisenberg. It is a darker side. He is deliberate in his choices and actions, even when he is not aware of it. He is skittish as he crosses over the line of good and evil. But, in the third movement, the line seems to no longer exist. It does make Eisenberg more appealing as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman film.

The movements, under Reichardt’s direction, builds the right amount of tension out of seemingly minor and insignificant moments in the plot. Many of these moments are unexpected. Just when you think you have figured out what direction Reichardt is going, you are proven wrong. For example, when Josh and Dena purchase a boat, Josh goes inside the stranger’s house to use the bathroom. You expect Josh, because of the tension that is building, to steal something from the house. But he does not. 

The third movement includes a key scene (I promise, no spoiler). In a series of close-up shots of eyes and feet, Reichardt uses a technique she is known for. Something major (thus important) is happening, and is being done off screen. As the viewer, you only have eyes and feet to gauge that action. This will truly frustrate some movie goers, but it is the kind of direction that leaves the story open-ended for the viewer to fill in the gaps.  Reichardt doesn’t attempt to give a happy ending, nor does she try to tell us what we should think of Josh. She leaves it completely up to us. 

The film is filled with a series of monologues that, at times, are just political rants. Some of these monologues and dialogues at first seem pointless, as if they are just taking up screen time. But, after a second viewing, you come to realize that these seemingly minor conversations are actually plot-moving techniques. While the rants have environmental messages, at times they are just too much. And the action that the three main characters choose is not, as Josh’s dad points out at breakfast the morning after, enough to make a real difference. 

It is the dilemma of young people of every generation. How do we make a difference? From the open square of Cairo to the streets of Ferguson, young people have been gathering trying to make a difference. At times their voices are heard and change is possible. At other times, actions are decided and change seems so very far away. This is the tension of social justice and charity. What will really make a difference? 

We volunteer to make a dent in the social problems we see around us. But we also need to get involved by supporting the organizations that work tirelessly every day to meet these needs; by continuing to volunteer; by making donations; and by writing or emailing elected officials. And these are just a few ways. There are so many more, but the thing to remember is that change is not easy. One bomb, one letter, one day volunteering is not going to be enough. The work of social justice is persistent work. As the prophet Micah says:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

Social change is not easy. We are called to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This takes dedication and persistence. It also means, as John Wesley would teach, that we do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

 

Dolphin Tale 2’s “Brave Souls”

Dolphin Tale was a surprise hit in the theaters in 2011. Enough of a surprise for the film makers to create a sequel to the family-friendly film. Dolphin Tale 2 continues the narrative of Winter, the brave dolphin whose incredible rescue and recovery (complete with a groundbreaking prosthetic tail), made her a symbol of hope and perseverance to many.

The young star of the two films, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, had written a song, “Brave Souls.” In a new video recently released on YouTube, Cozi, who plays Hazel in both films, shares about how the Dolphin Tale movies and the dolphins Winter and Hope, inspired the words she penned.

Dolphin Tale 2 is scheduled to be released in theaters on Tuesday, September 9, 2014.

Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max - 1979Mel Gibson is Max in George Miller’s cult classic that changed the scope of Australian cinema. In a flimsy plot, Max is a normal young man in the time and place when things are not as normal anymore. Set in the not-too-distance future, this somewhat apocalyptic wasteland is symbolic of the social decay. Max becomes a victim of this social decay more than once.

A biker gang terrorizes the wasteland. These villains, Toecutter is the leader of this gang. There are villains and then there is Toecutter. He, like the other villains, are just plain terrifying. This gang of villains play into very fear we have, no matter how deep we have buried them.

Max is one of the leather-cladded policemen who are doing their best to keep the biker gang in line. He is one of the good guys. And he really is a good guy. When his partner is killed by the gang, he decides to walk away from his job. It is too dangerous. He takes his wife and his son, and they leave the area in search for a better, safer, place to live.

The tone and the appearance of the film changes then. No longer is the screen dominated by dark leather and villainess faces. Now the screen is occupied by sunshine, beaches, and bluejeans. Life is good. It is the clearest sense that there are two different realities in this wasteland. It is a reminder of the tension between what Max and the police are fighting for and the reality that the biker gang prefers. It is the tension between good and evil; justice and injustice; integrity and corruption.

Max is drawn back into the tension when, stopping to fix a flat tire, his wife encounters the biker gang. They do not cease their terror, not even when they kill Max’s son and severely injure his wife. It is too much for Max. He cannot handle it. He returns home, digs out his leather police uniform, and chooses a car out of the garage. He is back and he is mad.

Max seeks justice through revenge. In less time than it took the film to get to this point of the plot, Max eliminates each member of the biker gang. When he finds the last gang member, Max handcuffs the guy to a wrecked vehicle. After setting up a crude time-delay fuse with that involves a slow fuel leak, Max throws the guy a hacksaw. Max is giving him the choice of sawing off the handcuffs or his ankle. Or he dies.

Max doesn’t seem to care, as he casually drives away. The handcuffed man’s fate is unknown after the vehicle explodes.  Max drives off into the unknown, symbolizing how it is with his soul.

It seems that chaos wins in this reality. Even the best of the good guys seems to have been engulfed by the chaos. Which should remind us how slippery the slope is between chaos and order is.

The Normal Heart (2014)

normalheartposterIn the 1980’s, the first case of what would later be known as AIDS was reported in the United States. The Normal Heart is HBO’s TV movie version of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play. Mark Ruffalo is Ned Weeks who has had enough. He has been in the closet for most of his adolescence and adult life, as so many of his friends have done. But, when his friends start dying, he becomes angry. This, at the time, unknown disease has to have a voice.

Julia Roberts is Dr. Emma Brookner, who has been submitting research papers to the scientific and medical communities for years. But, because the disease primarily affects gay men, it has been ignored. Emma’s anger is only matched by Ned’s. At times, though, it is a bit too much. Ned seems to alienate everyone, including the gay community. We know, from our side of history, that he is correct. Until the community being affected by the disease finds their voice and starts speaking out, it will be near impossible for change to take place.

In a way, Ned is a prophetic voice. He has a vision of what the world could be like, and that what is (or is not) being done is not working. Though he is not chosen as the president of a group of men, it is his vision that gets it started. It is his vision that pulls these different people together to start an organization that does what other organizations will not do – help gay men who are suffering from a horrible disease.

The early church father, Augustine of Hippo, has said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” This is Ned. He has anger with the way things are, and has courage to do something about it. All led by hope that dwells deep within him.

It is an issue of justice, and Ned reminds us that social justice is more than just offering a hand out. Social justice requires us to get involved and to use our voice. And to be persistent, as the persistent widow in Luke 13 was. Ned also reminds us that it is not easy work. Ned takes to his typewriter, he takes to local TV stations, he attempts to advocate with the Mayor’s office and beyond. He also cares for Felix (Matt Bomer) as the disease takes his life. For Ned this fight for justice is personal.

Filming was put on a whole for a while to give Matt Bomer a chance to lose up to forty pounds to play the AIDS-stricken Felix. The break in filming was worth the effect. Bomer’s performance is heart-wrenchting. Felix is the only character we see dying, and perhaps that is a good thing. It is so powerful and so disturbing at the same time, I don’t think we could handle seeing more than one.

Bomer is not the only one who gives an amazing performance. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) plays Tommy Boatwright, who works with the organization manning the phones, among other things. Parsons played this role on stage. His monologues are by far the best in the whole film. Parsons is able to take you into Tommy’s feelings and emotions, which at first only seem to be on the surface, but actually run deep and even theological.

Tommy starts a tradition of storing Rolodex cards. When he learns that another man has died from AIDS, he takes their contact card out of his Rolodex and adds it to a stack of others who have died. He is not going to throw them away, because “that seems too final.” Instead, he stores them in his desk drawer. He stores their memory.

The film is telling a historical narrative about the AIDS breakout. It is a history that needs to be remembered. Just as we need to remember the struggle of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, we need to remember the struggle of the gay community in the 1980’s. The Normal Heart helps us remember how some, like Ned, discovered voices and used them when others could not.

Juno (2007)

JunoUnder the direction of Jason Reitman and with a script by Diablo Cody, Juno breaks the mold of usual comedies. The film is so different from most films that there is very little doubt that it is something special. What begins as a somewhat screwball of a comedy turns out to be so much more. The characters are so well-developed that we come to love them in all of their screwballness. There is very little wonder that Roger Ebert said that Juno “is just about the best movie of the year.”

Ellen Page is Juno MacGuff. Page, 20 at the time, is brilliant, delivering Cody’s witting lines with class and style, all while making a theater full of people fall in love with her. Michael Cera is Paulie Bleeker, a tall, skinny, track runner, and Juno’s best friend. Juno convinces Paulie that they should experiment with sex. While Paulie is not as eager as Juno is, he complies and, of course, Juno gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancy is not usually a comedic moment. Reitman’s film, however, handles it with grace that portions of our society do not.

Juno decides to have an abortion. When she arrives at the clinic, a classmate of hers is protesting solo against abortions. Reitman is very careful here. The film is not about abortions – anti or pro. The film is about a teenage girl coming to terms with all of the changes in her life. While in the clinic, she is overwhelmed by the waiting room, and leaves quickly. She decides to have the child.

She knows, as a 16-year-old high school student, that she cannot raise this child, speaking to her maturity. Juno and her friend Leah (Olivia Thirby) look through ads in the Penny Saver for adoptive parents: “They have ‘Desperately Seeking Spawn’ right next to the pet ads.”

It is through the Penny Saver, that Juno finds Mark and Vanessa Loring, played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Gardener. The couple lives well, and they seem to be in love and a happy couple struggling with infertility. Juno decides they are the right couple and plans are made for them to adopt the baby. Juno connects with Mark, visiting him after school, even though her stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) cautions her about boundaries.

During one of those visits, Mark tells Juno that he is planning on leaving Vanessa. He suggests that he may have feelings for Juno, who does not share his feelings and is more concerned about making sure the baby grows up in a happy home. Juno storms out, unsure what to think.

Juno heads up at the convenience store, Honey and Milk the sign reads on two sides of the store. Juno is lying on the hood of her van staring up sty the stars pondering and discerning her next steps. Honey and Milk brings to mind the Old Testament proclamation for the Hebrew people to go to the land of milk and honey. The Promised Land. The land where all troubles, pains, and sorrows will be no more.

Of course, the land of milk and honey does not have to be an actual, physical land. It can be a spiritual state of mind. It is outside of the Honey and Milk store that Juno comes to understand what she has to do. She scribbles a note on the back of a Jiffy Lube receipt, drives back to the Loring’s, leaves the note on their front porch, rings the doorbell, and drives off.

The note, which Vanessa framed and hung in the nursery, read, “Vanessa – If you’re still in, I’m still in. – Juno.”  In an earlier scene, Juno asks her father Mac (J. K. Simmons), “I need to know that it’s possible for two people to stay happy together forever.” It is clear that Juno is no longer trying to be funny and witty. She has real emotions that she is taking seriously. She needs to know if love is possible for herself and for her baby.

Her dad answers, “The best thing you can do is to find someone who loves you for exactly what you are.”

Juno & PaulieJuno has an epiphany outside of the Honey and Milk, brining her to her land of milk and honey, that Vanessa already loves the unborn baby for what and who he is. And she has the epiphany that she loves Paulie for who and what he is.

Juno finds her promised land.

The film is one of those rare films that has no scenes that are out-of-place or extra. The story flows like a smooth river, heading in one, clear direction, making the film not only unique but refreshing. It is a film that is non-judgemental, being sure not to make a statement, but telling a story of real teenagers in the real world with grace. Reminding us all who live in the real world that we too can treat the unexpected things that happen around us with grace.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good-Will-Hunting-movie-posterWill Hunting (Matt Damon) is a young man who is living on the edges headed toward total self-destruction. During the day he is a janitor at MIT, at night he is partying at bars with his buddies, picking and getting into fights. While he reads everything and anything he can get his hands on, he hides that intelligence. He may not be a student at MIT or Harvard, but he has a brilliance that baffles the smartest MIT professors.

Mostly, Will Hunting is in pain. His childhood has been filled with abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He hides from that pain, while acting out in that pain. It leads him to being jailed after hitting a police officer during a fight on a black top basketball court. In the meantime, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) has been searching for Will because Will is the only person on campus who has solved an  unsolvable math problem.

Lambeau manages to work things out so that Will is released into his custody, under two conditions: 1. Will meets with Lambeau on a regular basis; and 2. Will meets with a counselor. Lambeau is unable to find a counselor that would be willing to work with Will, until Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). Sean, a former college roommate of Lambeau’s, is one of the people in Will’s life who works towards bringing him back from the edge of self-destruction.

Sean is a community college professor who has pain in his own life centering around the death of his wife. In a sense Will and Sean become an odd couple. They both have experienced great pain in their lives, and they both hide from that pain in their own ways. In a way, by bringing Will to Sean, Lambeau is an agent of healing for them both.

Robin Williams would win his only Oscar through his performance as Sean McGuire. While it is a dramatic role, one that most audiences were not used to seeing Williams in, there was still space for Williams to do his best improv. In the scene in Sean’s office where he is talking to Will about his dead wife, Williams ad-libs the whole monologue about his wife farting in her sleep.

In addition to Lambeau and Sean, there are others who are working to bring Will back from the edge. His best friend from his childhood, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), tells Will, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It would be an insult to us if you’re still around here in twenty years.” Chuckie is telling Will to move on with his life, not to let the old neighborhood pull him back. Will has a chance to move on, a chance to grow, a chance to change. Chuckie sees that in him, and is encouraging Will to take the chance.

Skylar (Minnie Driver), who ironically was named after a girlfriend of Matt Damon’s when he co-wrote the script with Ben Affleck (for which they won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar), only to breakup with her and start dating Minnie Driver, is another character who sees potential in Will. Skylar is a British student attending Harvard who wants Will to go with her to California. She knows that he is hiding behind his past and the pain it holds. Leaving home will bring Will liberation.

Boston BenchEven though Will has these prophetic voices urging him to move forward, to change, and to embrace his future, Will is reluctant. Perhaps it is class pride, he does not want to leave his kind behind. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence. While Will seems to swim in his confidence, he is still hiding behind the pain, suggesting that he is not as confident in his God-given gifts and abilities, especially when he hides mosts of those gifts.

At an emotionally high point of the film, Sean tells Will, “You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” The message of this statement echoes throughout the film. When Will lets his walls down and welcomes new relationships with Sean and Skylar, he welcomes the possibility of change. It was extremely difficult for Will to believe in himself when he went a lifetime of having no one believe in him.

Many of us may not have experienced the pain and abuse that Will has, or live with the levels of anger he does. But we all have walls up, hiding us from things we don’t want to face about ourselves and our relationships. If we let the walls down, and welcome a relationship with the One who gives new life, change is possible.

Sean was the first person to really believe in Will. Believe in who Will is, and to give him the permission to have the courage and the strength to be who he is on his own terms. We all need a prophetic mentor like Sean McGuire.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

source: imdb.com
source: imdb.com

On the outskirts of New Orleans lies a narrow piece of land known as Isle de Jean Charles. It is slowly disappearing into the Terrebonne Bay. It lies just outside the levees that protect New Orleans. This is the inspiration of the fictional Bathtub in Benh Zeitlin’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

The Bathtub is a Louisiana wilderness of poverty. The community struggles to survive the incoming storms, and just survive period. The Bathtub looks and feels post-apoloypatic. At first, as the film begins, it is hard to tell when and where the film is. Eventually we know that we are outside of New Orleans, with drilling rigs and oil refineries in the background.

Despite its rough appearance, Hushpuppy, the six-year-old heroine of the film, thinks the Bathtub is the “prettiest place on Earth.” Hushpuppy has a connection to the natural world. She picks up every animal she can, lifts it up to her ear, and listens to it. This is just one of the glimpses into Hushpuppy’s soul. A tender soul that is connected to more than just the natural, but to the spiritual as well.  Hushpuppy has been described as a mystic, a person who seeks unity with the Holy. Hushpuppy does this through her connection through the natural world around her.

The Bathtub is her sanctuary.

Quvenzhané Wallis is the first-time actress who plays Hushpuppy and is beyond incredible. She was five when she was cast for the movie, and seven when filming was completed. So much of her is in the character of Hushpuppy to the point that Hushpuppy would not be Hushpuppy without Wallis. It is hard to believe this is her first time acting.

An unwanted storm is on the way to the Bathtub. Which is hard to believe, as it appears that the residents of the Bathtub already live in a post-storm world. Hushpuppy narrates much of the film with her six-year-old philosophy about the world. It is just one of the ways in which we get a glimpse at the world through the wide eyes of Hushpuppy. She knows just how big and powerful she is in this world, which is evident when she comes face-to-face with the mythical, giant, wild boars who escape from the melting glaciers. The boars, of course, are not real. They are a part of Hushpuppy’s imagination based on the climate change theory of her teacher’s: “Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled . . . Y’all better learn to survive.”

source: imdb.com
source: imdb.com

When the hurricane force winds and rain arrive, Hushpuppy and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who is a baker in the Third Ward of New Orleans), do not leave the Bathtub despite the mandatory evacuation. (“Daddy says brave men don’t run from their place.”) Rescue workers come in and take them, and the other storm survivors, to a shelter on the other side of the levees. The levees become a symbol of the barrier between these two worlds.

While at the shelter, doctors discover that Wink has a terminal illness and is dying. It is another way in which Hushpuppy’s world is coming unraveled. The father-daughter relationship here is unique to their situation and environment. At times, they are more like partners, codependent upon one another. At other times, Wink is the disciplinarian, smacking Hushpuppy on the head when she does wrong. Most of the time Wink calls her, “Man,” suggesting an equality between them.

Despite all that Hushpuppy goes through – surviving a house fire, living without her mother, leading a group of orphaned children, and seeing her father ill – Hushpuppy takes up the challenge to repair the world.

Hushpuppy: I see that I’m a little piece of a big universe, and that makes things right.

Hushpuppy comes to understand that she is one part of the larger puzzle of what repairs the world. It doesn’t take much to convince us that the world is unraveling around us. We each are a part of the universe, and we each play a roll in making things right. This is what is means to be a part of the Body of Christ.

Just as Hushpuppy is a mystic, living in the mysteries of the Holy doing her part to make things right, the film carries the viewer into the mysteries of an unfolding world. One where suffering is a reality and answers to life’s problems are not as black and white as we would like them to be. One where, as Hushpuppy says, “depends on everything fitting together just right.”

Maleficent (2014)

Maleficent Let’s get this out of the way. Disney’s Maleficent was no where as good as we were made to believe. The character of Maleficent has captured the imaginations for decades. The film goes from Once Upon a Time moments to more, darker Grimm moments. To finally see her in a live-action film was an opportunity to create an amazing film. However, the film, while good, is not amazing. In short, it could have been better – I had hoped it would be better.

Maleficent attempts to be an origin story of its title character, which seems to be the post-Wicked norm. The story begins with Maleficent as a young girl, complete with horns and wings. She is a peace-maker in her world. When the other creatures have disagreements, Maleficent (played by Angelia Jolie) finds resolution. There is a great concern when a human child is discovered in their world. Maleficent is the one who shows the child, a farm boy, grace, even though he was trying to steal a crystal. The two children become friends and as they grow into teenagers, the fairy and the human share a kiss – “true love’s first kiss.” At this moment, it is like any other Disney film.

But as the two get older, they grow apart. The boy stops visiting the forest. The boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), as an adult works for the king. He overhears the dying king promise his throne to the one who kills Maleficent. What was that about true love?

Stefan becomes a trickster as he woos Maleficent into his arms and then gives her a sleeping potion. While in a deep sleep, he cuts Maleficent’s wings off. He returns to the castle with the wings as his bounty to the dying king. And upon the king’s death, Stefan takes the throne.

The moment when Maleficent awakens to find that her wings – her freedom – has been torn from her, is possibly the most deeply disturbing scene while also the most captivating. Even though your gut tells you to turn away, you cannot take your eyes off the screen as Maleficent screams out in anger and sorrow. Something that was so precious to her and apart of her identity was violently taken from her while in a vulnerable state. The allusion to sexual violence may not be a mistake.

The assault transforms Maleficent into a villain. But this villain is not soulless. We have seen her extend grace to those who are different, welcoming all. While Maleficent literally gets darker, the grace in her soul never really escapes. That part of her never really leaves her. She places a curse on Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning).  On the edge of the forest one day, Aurora encounters Maleficent and says, much to Maleficent’s dismay, that she knows who the fairy is.

Aurora: I know who you are.

Maleficent: Do you?

Aurora: You’re my Fairy Godmother!

Maleficent: What?

Aurora Aurora senses that some being has been watching out for her during her childhood. She believes, and rightly so, that Maleficent is the being who has been doing so. Aurora, instead of seeing the evil villain all of us have come to see in Maleficent, sees a somewhat holy and innocent being who is filled with compassion and grace.

This isn’t quite the 1959 Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. But, this is one reason why Maleficent is fascinating. It is rich with themes about things not being quite what they seem, which I think may have attracted Jolie to the film. There is talk about evil throughout the film. Maleficent tells Aurora a time or two that there is a great evil in the land. She is, of course, talking about herself. She knows the evil that dwells within her. Yet, at the same time, Aurora sees the grace in Maleficent. The grace she cannot see in herself.

It raises the issue that films like The Dark Knight Rises rose before it. What is the face of evil? Is evil as black and white as we want it to be? (I don’t have answers to these, just want to raise the questions.)

evil in this worldAngelia Jolie is able to make us fear Maleficent, while also extending empathy. We connect with her conflicted feelings of doing what is right and doing what is wrong (Romans 7). And while at first she is pretending to go along with Aurora’s assumption that she is a godmother, she plays into the role. Aurora’s love for her is strong enough to melt away the rage, hate, and sorrow at being mutilated by someone who declared love for her.  This is true love, love for another that knows no boundaries. It is not romantic in the classic Walt Disney sense. It is authentic and real. It is Christ-like love.

Once Maleficent realizes what she has done, placing a curse that can never be broken because true love does not exist, she feels remorse. She is responsible for Prince Philip coming to the castle to awaken Aurora from her deep sleep. Yet, the kiss does not work. Maleficent stands over the sleeping beauty’s bed and whispers an apology:

I will not ask you for forgiveness. What I have done is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge. I never dreamed that I could love you so much. You stole what was left of my heart. And now I’ve lost you forever.

She kisses Aurora on the forehead, and the princess awakes. Like in Frozen, Disney boldly transforms what true love means, as well as the face of evil. It is a more realistic portrait of the human condition. We are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) who strive to resist evil, but often times fail. At the same time we are created in the image of the Creator, and as such we are grace-filled beings. We don’t need magic kisses from princesses and princes. No, the only “magic” we need is the Christ-like love we share with one another.

 

Planet of the Apes (1968)

planetofapesadvancehestonWhen it was released in April of 1968, it was not well received by many critics. However, Planet of the Apes would go down as a classic sci-fi film. Charlton Heston is George Taylor, an American astronaut who, along with his crew, crashes 2,000 years in the future on an unknown planet. Everything on this planet seems to be turned upside down. In this strange land, apes rule, and humans are hunted, caged, and enslaved.

At first, Taylor is injured and unable to speak. He tries various things to get the apes to understand that he is as intellect as they are. It is Zira (Kim Hunter) who sees something special in Taylor. At first it is evolution. She and her fiancé Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) want to study Taylor to see how humans are evolving. The dialogue, with intent, is similar to conversations humans have had about studying apes. After they get to know Taylor, a theory that was being forgotten returns to the surface. Cornelius’ archeological studies suggest that humans existed on the planet in a more civilized society than apes currently do.

It is perfect and brilliant commentary on the modern human condition. In the beginning of the film, in one of Taylor’s speeches, he says, “Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox that sent me to the stars, still make war with his brother?” A question, no doubt, theological and philosophically debated in 1968 in the midst of a war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. The effects of which were not lost on the film’s crew. Michael Wilson rewrote the original script by Rod Serling (the ending was the only contribution of Serling’s that Wilson kept). Wilson, like so many during the 1950s in Hollywood, was blacklisted for allegedly being communist. The Cold War and the changing tides of culture and thought and its effects on society hit close to home.

Final Scene - Planet of the Apes

Nor is it a surprise the role of nuclear destruction (a great fear of the Cold War) plays in the film. Taylor’s longing for a war-free world is only met with a world destroyed by war. The iconic ending, with Taylor on his knees in the sand, yelling, “Damn them! Damn them all to hell!” reveals the truth. Don’t be mistaken, Taylor is not referring to the apes, but the humans he left behind. Taylor has not been on an unknown planet. He has been on his own, war-torn planet where everything has been turned upside down.

1968 was a turbulent time, as well, for people of faith. Many were trying to reconcile being at war for so long. Others were struggling with new laws of desegregation. Suddenly lives where changing, and not everyone was handling it well.

Since the beginning of time, religion has played a significant role in societies. It is appropriate that Planet of the Apes includes this as part of the story. The sacred texts, though only talked about and not seen, are a character in the film themselves. Dr. Zaius (Defender of the Faith and Minister of Science) and the others are the ape versions of Pharisees. While watching the film we know that Dr. Zaius is wrong in what he is doing.

And yet, how often do we do the same thing?

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) and others like him, do their best to dissuade Cornelius and Zira from following these loftily ideals of humans being intelligent. They call upon the sacred scrolls to reason why the humans should stay in their place and things not change.

When we are scared of something or uncertain about changes in society, we use our sacred texts to justify who is considered “us” and who is considered “them.” The scriptures become security blankets for why we do not welcome those who are different from us. Planet of the Apes warns us against this narrow thinking. Dr. Zaius clearly understands that there is a truth and a reality beyond the boundaries of their land. It is safer if everyone believes what they have been taught. Only danger awaits them when they step outside the boundary. It could be argued that because Dr. Zaius knows about the destruction of humanity’s civilization by humanity, that they do not want to repeat history. That they want to be smarter than the humans and not make the same mistakes, and so they hide behind their religion.

It is safer when we hide behind our sacred texts.

As Christians, we follow a boundary crosser. We follow a Messiah who stepped over the social lines of division. Jesus sat and had lunch with the tax collector. He talked to the Samaritan woman. He touched the lepers. He healed the blind and made the lame to walk. All of those who were different and (sometime literally) isolated from the rest of society. It was taught that Jews and Samaritans did not interact. Jesus broke that “rule.” It was taught that you avoided lepers and bleeding women. Jesus broke that “rule” on both accounts.

And Jesus did so with love.

Planet of the Apes could have easily been a silly film about apes on Earth. Instead, it is filled with cultural commentary about the world in which we live and could live. And though the film has a few moments that are clearly reflection of the 1960s, it is a film that is ageless. Its message of peace over war, unity over segregation, balance of religion and science, is still a message to be heard today.

The Perfect Wave (2014)

The Perfect Wave At a time when movies like God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have motivated movie goers – both evangelical and progressive – comes a film from South Africa: The Perfect Wave. It is billed as “more than a love story.” The film is based on the real life events of Ian McCormack, who is well known as an atheists turned born again Christian. In fact, the story that the film portrays is a story he has told to millions of people around the world.

Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) plays Ian as he skips around the world including Australia, Indonesia, and Africa, in search for the perfect wave. Ian is portrayed as a somewhat selfish 24-year-old not concerned with his mother’s charity work or anything to do with the church. His family, on the other hand, are devout in their spiritual life and in their care for others.

Out of the blue one day, Ian decides to sell his car and tells his mother (Cheryl Ladd) that his going on his dream trip in search of big waves. He keeps a journal of the different waves he surfs on along the trip. Even though she cannot convince him to stay home, the mother has a bad feeling – a sixth sense, if you will, that something is going to happen to Ian. She makes no bones in telling people that she has heard the voice of God – there is a scene or two where she describes the occasion – as such, her Holy Spirit sense may have some weight to it.

Ian and his best friend set on this journey. As he searches for the next best wave to ride, he realizes that he is searching for something more. “I’m chasing something,” he narrates, “that’s more real than this.”

What Ian is in search for is love. It is the story of a young man’s love for surfing. It is the story of a faithful mother’s love for her son. It is the story of young men and women falling in love. And it is the story of persistent love of God. For the most part, the film is about Ian’s desire to find the perfect wave. Everything else in life seems to not matter as much as that perfect wave does. Then, after a relationship breaks up, the film takes a turn toward the deeply spiritual. Ian has a near death experience. After being pronounced dead, Ian experiences not only the love of God, but the voice of God. Who knew a jelly fish sting would have such an effect?

While the film has a few rough edges in its writing and occasionally in its acting, it is a solid family film. It is not, however, a film that will be attractive to the “unbeliever.” But perhaps, that is not the point. Perhaps the filmmakers want the mostly Christian audience to experience Ian’s story in a new way and then feel compelled to share it with others.

Perhaps.

The film gets points for not beating the audience over the end with Biblical “truth.” It is open just enough for people to come to their own conclusions – meeting them where they are in their relationship with Jesus Christ. The film, for a brief moment, suggests that a person can be spiritual without being religious. Were not for the relationship Ian developed with a spiritual woman, he may not have had the Paul-like blinding light Jesus experience that he did.

For a complete listing of cities where the film is playing, you can click here.

 

 

Up (2009)

UpUp reminds us just how brilliant Pixar is and why the studio has been leading the way in modern animation. Not to mention some the church’s greatest theologians. Up is the story of Carol Fredricksen (Ed Asner) who grieves the death of his wife, Ellie, as well as the death of life as he knows it. A major company has bought up most of the land around his house building parking lots and skyscrapers. Mr. Fredricksen does not what to change. Due to some unfortunate events, Mr. Fredricksen has to leave his house. However, he does not go quietly. Using a large number of helium-filled balloons to move his house to the beloved Paradise Falls.

What makes Up a summer blockbuster isn’t just the adventure, it is the amazing story that goes along with it. Which is what Pixar does well. The images alone are so beautiful it welcomes you into the story. The beginning of the film is itself a short film telling the story of how Carol and Ellie met as children, fell in love, got married, dealt with the unexpectedness of life, and eventually Ellie’s death. Most of this is told without a single word being spoken. The images are so powerful they communicate exactly what needs to be communicated, leaving you laughing or crying.

What follows is the story of Mr. Fredricksen refusing to move from the home that he and Ellie built together. The man who once loved adventure, has become a grumpy old man. He is not only grieving the lost of his wife, but also all of the dreams they had of great explorations. When he is forced to leave and join a retirement home, he decides to take matters into his own hands, and move his home to Paradise Falls. Russell, a Wilderness Explorer Scout, ends up on this helium filled adventure with Mr. Fredricksen as he tried to earn a “helping a senior citizen” badge.

Mr. Fredricksen comes to realize that even though he is older, it does not mean that adventure and following your dreams is over. He still has much to give to the world. This is the gift that he gives to Russell. His knowledge, his experience, his care, his mentoring, are all things that Russell benefits from. It is a strong reminder to the Church for the necessity of intergenerational ministries where young and old come together.

In the film, Russell opens up about his absent father. Mr. Fredricksen becomes a father figure to Russell. One of the warmest moments of the film is when Mr. Fredricksen is present when Russell receives his badge, standing on stage with the other proud fathers. More importantly, the two discover that they have a few things in common. They are both lonely, and they both need each other.

No matter our age, we have something to offer, and we need each other. Let us not forget what a grand adventure a community can go on when it embraces all the generations.

Jaws (1975)

Jaws_MovieCoverBased on the best-selling novel by Peter Benckley, Jaws did something that no other film had done. In the careful and deliberate hands of director Steven Speilberg, Jaws is an action flick and a scary thriller, making use of a real shark as well as a mechanical shark. At times, you don’t know the difference. To our benefit, Speilberg made the thriller part more than on-screen blood and guts. It was in the context of a well developed story with well developed characters.

While all the elements are there for a typical archetypal story, Speilberg is careful not to draw too much attention to it. He leaves that work to the viewer.

Brady (Roy Scheider) moves his family from the streets of New York to a New England beach community (think Martha’s Vineyard). It is his first summer there as their chief of police. The Mayor and other locals are getting ready for the town’s big Fourth of July parade and events. It is a high tourist time of year, and the community relies on those tourist dollars for their economy.

Which is why when a teenage girl goes missing, and parts of her are found on the beach, that the Mayor and others are not happy that Brady wants to shut the beach down. The ME who first told him it was a shark attack, changes his mind to say that it was a boating accident. The biggest fear for the town leaders was not what might or might not be in the water, but losing money.

Brady has a fear of water. He does not swim, and sits patiently and anxiously on the beach watching the waters after the missing girl is found in pieces. While he is watching, other town’s people are coming up to him asking him when he is going to take care of this problem or that problem. It is not so much that the people are missing the immediacy of a shark attack, it is that they are not aware. There is a lack of awareness.

Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) comes into town and is another voice of caution and awareness. Hooper is a rich kid who has found his niche as an oceanographer. In a quick, to the point tone, Hooper tells the town people that they are not safe until they rule out what is out there in the water. He knows all there is to know about sharks, and is even willing to get in the water with them.

Quint (Robert Shaw) is a typical crusty old seaman. He is the kind of guy you don’t want to mess with after a long day at sea. For most of the beginning of the film, Quint is part of the background. He tells the town during a town hall meeting that he can catch the shark, for the right price. And we see him glide by as other locals and non-locals board their boats to go out and catch the shark for the award money. He snickers at them, because he knows what they do not.

This isn’t just a shark, it’s a great white shark.

In a five-minute monologue while the three men are at sea hunting the shark, Quint shares his story and why he hates sharks. Quint has faced his fear and triumphed. But there were many of his comrades who did not, and for them he hunts this shark.

Brady has a fear of water. He does not – will not – get into the water. But he does get into the boat with Quint and Hooper in search for the great white. At point, while shoving raw meat into the water, Brady comes face to face with the giant of a shark, and says, “We need a bigger boat.”

Each man has boarded this boat in search of the great white that is holding a community in the bondage of fear

2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  These three men – Brady, Quint, and Hooper – live this verse. They have their own fears, but they overcome them. God did not give us a spirit of fear, God has empowered us with power through the Holy Spirit and love and self-control. We are in control of how much we fear. We are in control of how much we love. And we are in control of how we use the power from the Holy Spirit. All three men, wise men in their own way, are hunting the shark because of the people they love, where the other shark hunters were hunting for the prize money.

These three men use their power to overcome the great white shark.

Jaws is a modern day parable reminding us that we decide how much fear controls our lives. We have to choice to love others as we have been loved, using the self-control that God has given us, and we have a choice to use our power for good. Let us all be hunters of great white sharks.