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.

The Redemption of Henry Myers (2014)

Redemption of Henry MyersThe Redemption of Henry Myers first aired on the Hallmark Channel in March 2014. It will be available on DVD Tuesday, June 10, 2014. The film is one from new, Christian-based studio EchoLight Studies, founded by former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who was an executive producer on this film. The studio has stated that it strives to not “create sermons wrapped in a movie but to create content that inspires, fascinates and incorporates a strong Christian worldview.”

The film is the story of Henry Myers (Drew Waters, Breaking Bad) who has lived a hard life. This Western opens as so many classic Westerns do, with a bank robbery. The symbolism in the opening scene is remarkable for the direction the rest of the film will go. A man on a horse-pulled cart carrying two pine coffin boxes, opens the boxes to reveal two of the most wanted men in the area. Afterwards, they rob a bank. In the midst of struggle, Henry’s gun goes off and kills a preacher.

Riddled with bad dreams, Henry finally finds himself at the home of the widow Marilyn (Erin Bethea) and her two children, Will and Laura. The family is a faith-filled family, they pray together and read from the Bible each evening. Henry stays away from most of it. But he listens and he ponders.

Jaden Roberts is excellent as the young daughter Laura. In many ways, Roberts carries the scenes she is in. She is the innocent, yet wise girl. She sees beyond the rough exterior of Henry to see his warm heart. And in moments when Marilyn is ready to let him go, it is Laura who reminds her that their Christian duty to care for the stranger.

The images of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke are obvious. Henry is the man beaten and wounded, and Marilyn is the Samaritan who cares for Henry when no one else will. It is obvious because it is one of the Bible passages the family reads together. As Marilyn says to Henry at one point, “Everyone deserves kindness.”

And Henry is not used to that. As he starts to feel better, he helps out around the ranch with an arm in a sling. As he helps Will (Ezra Proch) put up a fence, the two have a conversation about doubt and faith. Will, who has been listening to the Bible being read since birth, doubts that there is much truth to it all. But Henry, who has only been listening to it for a few days, isn’t quite ready to say that it’s all unbelievable.

I typically approach Christian films with some caution. Frankly, deliberately Christian films tend to be bad films. Redemption, however, is not one of those films. It’s a good, clean, family friendly film. And it doesn’t go in the direction you might think it will. At least, I didn’t. I was pleasantly surprised at the twist, and think that it is a better movie because of it. I only have two wishes. I wish that the scene where Henry has his break-down of yelling to God was done a little differently. It was too predictable. The other is that I wish director Clayton Miller used more of Erin Bethea’s acting chops. Bethea is an incredible actress. I did not feel like Miller tapped into all that Bethea could  have offered this film.

Overall, the film is a good film. It portrays the struggle between revenge and redemption. It portrays, not just in dialogue, but through small details that change is possible, reminding us of the promise of new birth.

The DVD is available in stores and on Amazon.com. 

Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984) Original_2A quiet librarian, who is a tiny woman, gently returns books to their shelves. Around her, books are beginning to move . . . off the shelves and around the library. This is just one of what will become many psychic nuisances. Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr. Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) geek out in their own way as they investigate the nuisances. After losing their lab and research positions at the university, they branch out to start their own business.

An old, run-down firehouse is renovated to become the 24-7 headquarters for the Ghostbusters. It is here that they meet Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) for the first time. Dana comes to the Ghostbusters because there seems to be a strange glow and menacing monster inside her fridge. While, Ray and Egon take interest in the actual case, Peter takes more interest in Dana. This is the character that Bill Murray plays so well. He is intelligent, and cool-headed, making side comments whenever he can.

The movie, no doubt a classic summer blockbuster, combines two elements that, prior to this film, were never combined . . . well. It did well the special effects, which require painstakingly detailed work. The floating, green, slimy ghost, the horned beasts, and the other strange things that need ghost busting. On the other hand, it is comedic gold. The dialogue is quick and smart, and with the combined alumni from the schools of Second City/National Lampoon/”Saturday Night Live”, there is little doubt of its awesomeness. The comedy that Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis learned in these settings is the kind that requires spontaneity and improvisation. And these are some of the masters.

Theologically, what does Ghostbusters offer us? When Winston (Ernie Hudson) joins the team, he and Ray talk about the Biblical connections to the end of days kind of stuff that is happening around them. Winston didn’t believe in the supernatural when he started working for them, he just needed a job. But after seeing it, he believed, which for him makes the possibility of the Revelation-like end of the world even more believable.

A metaphorically reading of Revelation would leave us with various “beasts” that would bring destruction upon the earth. The message at the end of Revelation is that no amount of beasts or destruction will prevent the victory of Jesus Christ and the creation of the New Heaven and the New Earth. And yet, we as Christians play a significant role in the Kingdom of God. We are agents of that Kingdom, eliminating the beasts that roam the earth for the simple intention of destruction. Like the Ghostbusters, we seek out the dark creatures of our world to eliminate. We set out to put an end to poverty, racism, hate, bullying, oppression, marginalization, and neglect. We have a responsibility as people of God to do this justice work. And, like the Ghostbusters, people are going to think we are foolish and strange for doing so. But it is our calling. It is our vocation. It is our purpose. We are the ghostbusters for the Kingdom of God.

Alan Partridge (2014)

alan-partridge-posterMore than twenty years ago Steve Coogan created the character Alan Partridge as a fictional sports reporter for the current affairs program on BBC called “On the Hour.” For those fans of Philomena, this is not the same Steve Coogan. The character of Alan Partridge has his own Wikipedia page to which we learn that he is “an insecure, superficial and narcissistic ‘wally.’ ” The character would later get his own tv series, “I Am Alan Partridge” (think The Larry Sanders Show). In a way, Alan Partridge  is to British TV and film what Ron Burgundy is to American cinema.

In this 2014 full-length feature film, Coogan reprises the role that was loved by some and questioned by others. The comedy is a weird hybrid of jokes that are really funny, and jokes that just cross the line. Partridge, here in this film, is a radio DJ who suddenly finds out that he and a co-worker, Jack, are on the short list of being fired. Only one of them can stay. Alan makes his plea with the new owners of the station to fire Jack. This leads to a hostage situation in the studio, which Alan is the bridging voice between Jack and the police.

The film calls into question the issue of how we fight for justice. The new owners are clearly only thinking about how to make money. Their concern is about their own wealth, and not about the quality of the radio programs they produce. Jack’s means of standing up against this injustice involves a shotgun and taking hostages. Alan kinda comes to terms that there might be a better way. And, as hard as it might be to image, the 55-year-old DJ matures. At the same time, Jack is dealing with an enormous amount of grief, which raises the question, “Where are his friends?” Again, another maturing moment for Alan when he comes to realize (kinda) that Jack considers him one of his best friends. The film seems to show that there are two kinds of people, those concerned with themselves and those concerned about others. Which are you?

And yet, the film introduces a third kind of person, whom you have to look closely for, as she may get lost in the goofiness. While Jack is the voice of the working class, and Alan (like his new bosses) is self-consumed, Alan’s assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu) is Alan’s moral compass, not to mention that of the film. Lynn is the one who is able to think past herself and see the larger picture. And, honestly, she is probably one of the funniest actors in the film. She is the one who tells Alan “Maybe you shouldn’t do that.”

Lynn is the oft missed voice crying out in the wilderness about the lack of other-centeredness. She is the voice, and really the only one, Alan listens to.

Overall, once you get past the ridiculousness of the humor, it is quite enjoyable. Granted, it is a question of taste, and you may not be able to handle it or stick it out. It is, however, exactly what Partridge fans have been longing for: their favorite screw-up in situations he should never be in, doing what he does best – screwing up.

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Pirates_of_the_Caribbean_movieA ship sails across the Atlantic from Great Britain to the Caribbean. The ship is transporting the new governor of Port Royal and his young daughter, who is fascinated by pirates. The others on the ship, however, are not. As the young girl gazed out over the Atlantic, she notices something drifting in the water. It is a boy, about her age. They rescue the boy, who is wearing a locket. Worried that the adults will think the boy is a pirate, the young girl takes it to save his life.

Skip ahead eight years, the young girl is now a young woman, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and the young boy is now a young blacksmith, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). The high seas adventure of this Walt Disney summer blockbuster based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Johnny Depp is Captain Jack Sparrow who has a deep affection for his blessed ship the Black Pearl. Sparrow’s trouble begins when he stops in the process of stealing a British ship to rescue Elizabeth Swann after she falls into the ocean. From there, Sparrow is at the top of the most wanted list.

Right away, one of Sparrow’s nemesis is the British commander, Norrington, who has made it his vocation to bring Sparrow to justice. Even though Sparrow saved Elizabeth’s life. Norrington wants to send Sparrow to his death. Elizabeth protests, only for Norrington to respond, “One good deed is not enough to redeem him from a life of wickedness.” To which Sparrow replies, “But enough to condemn me.”

Redemption is the theme of the film. Jack Sparrow is searching for redemption. Elizabeth, here in the rescue scene and throughout the movie, is the one who consistently raises the need to see others in a different light. People are not always so easily labeled good and bad.

Sparrow’s other nemesis in the film is Captain Barbossa, played by the brilliant actor Gregory Rush. Barbossa leads a mutiny on the Black Pearl which leaves Sparrow stranded on a deserted island. But because Barbossa leans heavily on a dark power, he and his crew are cursed leaving them among the Undead. They look like any other normal pirate, until they are exposed to the light of the moon, where their skeletal cadavers are revealed. Which all seems like a silly plot point, until you realize that even though they are dead (and not killable), they are searching for the cure from the curse.

Elizabeth is the source of Norrington’s other self-determined vocation – marriage. But Elizabeth has been in love with Will Tuner ever since she first met him. When Sparrow finds out who Will is – or more importantly, who his father is – Will becomes very important part of Sparrow’s plan to reclaim the Black Pearl.

Barbossa, believing that Elizabeth is a Turner, thinks that she is the one who will break the curse. But she is not. Sparrow tells Barbossa that he knows whose blood he needs to break the curse. Blood is needed to break the curse. For Barbossa and the crew to be redeemed, to come back to life again, blood is needed. The blood of the only son of Bill “Bootstrap” Turner – Will. At first, Will believes that his father was a salesman, killed by pirates. When he finds out that his father really was a pirate, he struggles to come to terms with who his father is and who he is.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, would talk about sin as a disease (curse) of which grace was the cure. Grace is possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer.

We know the cure for the curse, but what caused the curse of the Black Pearl? No doubt, Pirates was intended to have a summer blockbuster sequel from the beginning. Who would have thought it would have four?

Top Ten Disney Animated Songs

Mickey MouseMoviepilot, an amazing source for all things pop culture, recently posted what they thought were the top ten disney songs from their animated films. You can read their list here. Just for fun, I thought I’d ponder with some folks on this Memorial Day what some of the top ten Disney songs would be. To be honest, it was a hard list to come up with, and we know this is not THE list, but it is A list.

10. That’s What Makes the World Go Round This song from one of Megan’s favorite films, The Sword in the Stone, Merlin gives some sound advice. “It’s up to you, how far you go. If you don’t try, you’ll never know.” In other words, live into your vocation, and don’t passively wait for things to happen.

 

9. Tale as Old as Time Mrs. Potts provides the soundtrack to Belle and the Beast’s first official date in The Beauty and the Beast. The love that the song sings about is as old as time, as it speaks of the depth and beauty of a relationship, where change is unexpected yet rewarded.

 

8. Heigh-Ho This classic from the first full-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Each dwarf with his own personality also has perfect pitch as they sing to and from work.

 

7. A Whole New World Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1992. Again, when we think of two individuals becoming one couple, it is a whole new world. It’s pretty good theology, when you think about it, for a couple who is getting married.

 

6. The Bare Necessities The Jungle Book was the first animated film made without Walt Disney. Though he touch is evident in the film, including the inclusion of this jazzy tune, and others. Baloo’s philosophy of life is not unlike Jesus’ phrase, “consider the lilies, they do not toil or spin,” in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Not to mention Baloo’s advice to the young man-cub not to search for what he thinks he needs, but to do without. In a time where consumerism has dictated so much of the American Dream, this is indeed sage advice.

 

5. Part of Your World The Little Mermaid in 1989 brought back to the Walt Disney studio the classic touch and magic of the original Disney animation films. This song of Ariel’s longing to be apart of the human world, and not a part of her own sets the stage for the film.

 

4. Hakuna Matata The Lion King is by far one of the best films ever . . . . at least in my humble opinion. This motto of Timon and Pumbaa introduces a new life philosophy to young Simba. Similar to Baloo’s Timon and Pumbaa’s Hakuna Matata means “No Worries.”

 

3. Be Our Guest The enchanted house own items throw a dinner party for their unexpected guest, Belle. While their master stews in his chambers, the servants extend the arm of hospitality, a lesson for all of us to be welcoming to all of our guests.

 

2. Friend Like Me Aladdin discovers the genie’s lamp for the first time, rubs it and the Robin Williams-voiced Genie makes his appearance. Genie tells Aladdin that he has never had a friend quite like him. And while Genie is bound to the three-wishes rule, he really is a friend, which is a major theme of the film.

 

1. Circle of Life In my book, this is the best Disney song from the best Disney film. The Lion King, after all these years, still is the best film to me. There is something sacred about all of the animals in the kingdom coming to pay respect to the newborn prince. When you see it on Broadway, it is even more powerful and sacred. The primal yell that opens the song (and the movie) is what grabs you and pulls you into the song, and as a result into the film. This song was passed over for the Best Original Song Oscar for Elton John and Tim Rice’s other Lion King song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” The song is the soundtrack to the baptism of infant Simba by the priest/prophet like character Rafika.

 

Alright, so, what did I leave out? What Disney songs would you add to the list? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

About Last Night (2014)

About Last NightThis remake of a 1980’s film of the same title stars Kevin Hart as Bernie, which was originally played by Jim Belushi and made Jim Belushi. The 1980’s About Last Night put Belushi on the map and his career took of. There is hope that the 2014 About Last Night will do the same for Kevin Hart.

Though based on the play by David Mamet’s titled Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the screenplay for this 2014 film leans heavily on the 80’s version starring Jim Belushi, Elizabeth Perkins, Demi Moore, and Rob Lowe. The major different between these two films with the same title is that the cast in the 2014 film delivers amazing performances all the way around. The biggest criticism of the earlier film was that Demi Moore and Rob Lowe delivered kind of a good performance. As an assemble, this cast is one of the best.

Hart is on the rising comedians who banked at the theaters with his own theatrical release of his stand-up. He has been in a few movies (Grudge, Ride Along) where he has been the sidekick. But here, in About Last Night, he is the lead. As Bernie he is best friend to Michael Ealy’s Danny. Danny has been out of a relationship for some time but refuses to date again. The film opens with Bernie sharing with Danny the sexual encounter he had with a woman named Joan (Regina Hall) the night before. Meanwhile, Joan is doing the same thing with her roommate Debby (Joy Bryant). The editing is so good that Bernie and Joan are finishing each others’ sentences without even knowing it. But it does something else. It communicates, from the beginning, that men and women are equal when it comes to relationships. What the woman says is just as important as what the man says, something we do not always get.

The film is said to be a tale of two romantic couples. Bernie and Joan set up Debby and Danny, inviting them to the club to hang out with them. Debby, when seeing an ex of hers, pretends that Danny is her boyfriend by grabbing his hand to hold. Danny tells her he will pretend to be her boyfriend anytime. And their relationship begins that evening when they have sex. Which happens a lot in this movie between these two couples, and they talk about it . . . a lot. And if that is something you don’t like in a movie, this is not the movie for you.

Bernie and Joan break-up and it becomes a strain on everyone. But eventually the two realize that they are made for each other. Danny and Debby, on the other hand, at first are reluctant to get involved with each other because of their former relationships. Even so, they eventually move in together. One of the first things Debby does is purchase a dining room table for the dining room space in Danny’s loft. The table is where they attempt to have Thanksgiving Day dinner with their friends. However, the relationship takes a turn and isn’t quite the same.

While Bernie and Joan are secretly back together, Debby and Danny break up. After some time, they meet up again and agree to go out and catch up.

While the film is a tale about two couples falling in love, it is also about friends being there for each other through the joys and the sufferings of life. Relationships are hard. When you love someone life is not just going to be automatically perfect. It takes a lot of work. And through that hard, and meaningful work, it is important to have good friends there to support you and be there for you. And that is what Bernie and Danny have in each other and what Joan and Debby have in each other.

And that is what the movie is really about.

Noah (2014)

noah-poster2At the sound of his name, Noah has become quite a controversial figure these days. The film has been declared “unbiblical” by many, while deeply theological by others. (For example, there is this YouTube video that someone thought I needed to see after posting a comparison chart and some discussion questions.) What follows is a theological reflection on the film. I know that there will be some readers who will disagree with me, and that is okay. I am assuming that you have seen the film. If not, I recommend reading this spoiler-free review.

Entertainment Weekly was perhaps one of the first outlets to say that the director

faithfully follows the message of the slim biblical text in the Book of Genesis, but he fills the gaps with spectacular CG effects, Tolkien-esque creatures

The film is based on the Genesis narrative of Noah, the man who found grace in the eyes of the Lord, as found in chapters 6-9. The film’s production notes cite the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls as additional sources. These are ancient texts, which are not found in the Christian canon, but were likely widely read in the ancient world.

Ari Handel, the co-writer of the film, told Jacob Sahms of HollywoodJesus.com that they started with Genesis. “The commentaries are there to draw on to take themes and questions that people have been asking about the Noah story for hundreds and thousands of years,” he said. The Genesis account wrestles with the themes of destruction and new beginnings (or second chances) and Handel told Jacob that they “wanted to humanize those issues and make the audience empathize with them.”

DeMilleTenCommandmentsDVDcoverAdam Hamilton, minister at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, agrees that these are powerful themes in the Genesis account. The themes, he argues, gets overshadowed in the film and when “Christians insist that the stories be read like an historian’s report of ancient history.” I don’t disagree with Hamilton, but I have to wonder if what we carry with us when we enter the dark theater  – our expectations, our baggage, our hopes of a great film or of a horrible film – is what overshadows the themes. Yes, the director Darren Aronofky is a self-proclaimed atheist. But that fact does not eliminate the themes of the Biblical account – the themes of destruction and new beginnings. The way the story is told is different from Sunday school – not unlike Cecil B. DeMille did with the Moses narrative in the classic film The Ten Commandments. The original Noah story was told and retold through oral tradition long before it was ever written down. The fact that artist liberties were taken, should not be a surprise.

Darren Aronofky took the lead as the film’s co-writer and director. Aronofky has been thinking about Noah and the themes of his story since middle school.  The 13-year-old Brooklyn native wrote a poem called “The Dove” in which we get this theological gem:

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.

In many ways this statement is the thesis for Aronofky’s film: “Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.”

The film begins with Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family as the only descendants left of Seth – the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth, unlike his older brother Cain who killed brother Abel, remained faithful to the ordinances of God. While the descendants of Cain kill animals to eat (they believe they gain power through the meat) and use up the earth’s resources, Noah and his family live a simple life.

Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?
Father Time or Voodoo Witch Doctor?

One evening, Noah has a dream where the earth is destroyed. Unclear about what the dream is about, he packs up his family and home and they hike to the mountain of this grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah’s father was Enoch “who walked with God.” It is believed that Enoch did not die a physical death, instead he was so faithful to God that one day he just walked into eternity. These are Noah’s genes.

Methuselah mixes some drink for Noah (which has earned him the “witch doctor” nickname). Upon awaking from his sleep, Noah tells Methuselah of his dream about the world being destroyed by water, not fire. As they discuss this, Noah acknowledges that the Creator’s goal is rebirth. Water has long been the theological and spiritual symbol of rebirth. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that he must be born again, drawing upon the images of water in the womb. The sacrament of baptism reminds us that in Christ we have a new life.

Noah follows the Creator’s instructions and builds an ark with the help of the Watchers. The closest we get to the Watchers in the Christian canon is the nephilim. These are the Tolkien like creatures that Entertainment Weekly spoke of.  These creatures of Earth’s rock each have a dim light within them. The Watchers themselves represent the thesis of the film – there is light within us – there is peace in the midst of evil.  The Watchers are fallen angels striving to redeem themselves with the Creator, which is accomplished when they are faithful in their assistance with Noah’s call.

There are a handful of images that get played and replayed through the film. The image of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, both humans are glowing creatures of light. This is followed by the image of a black snake coming out of a green snake, leaving behind the skin. Then, the image of the fruit of the tree, beating like a heart, acknowledging that The Knowledge of Good and Evil is itself life. The fruit of the tree is picked and eaten, which is followed by the image of Cain killing Abel.

Peace has been engulfed by evil.

This series of images communicate a theological understanding of sin and salvation. When Noah tells his family the story of creation (remember that the bulk of Genesis was first oral tradition before it was written scripture), these images repeat themselves. Humanity was created in the image of God. But when the first humans disobeyed by eating the fruit of the tree, sin distorted the image of God. The image of God in humanity continued to get distorted until the point where the wickedness was so great (humanity was striving to be its own ruler – as Ham tells the human leader, “There is no King, only the Creator is God”) that God decided to flood the earth to give it new life. The themes of destruction and new beginnings.

Evil does not win.

But evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.

Noah ArkUnfortunately the debates about whether or not Noah is Biblical – word for word from the Bible – has overshadowed Aronofky’s thesis: Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin. If you have seen the film, you would most likely agree with me that evil seems to prevail in the film. The film is filled with darkness and it feels worse when the storms and the rain come. Peace only seems to appear at the end of the film, represented by the broad, all-encompassing rainbow.

Noah takes the call to build the ark seriously. Humanity has rejected God and this is a serious offensive. Aronofky and Handel, as they did in other films such as Black Swan, dive into the exploration of obsession. To say that Noah goes a little crazy while he is on the ark is putting it mildly. Noah becomes so obsessed with the wickedness of humanity, that he truly believes that his sons will be the last men on earth. If Shem’s unborn child is a girl, Noah will kill her. But, if the child is a boy, he will let the child live, and he would be the last human on earth.

noah-jennifer-connellyAri Handel tells Hollywood Jesus:

Noah is given an almost insurmountable job, to go build this giant ark. How could he do that? To do that and let everyone else die. What kind of power of will? What strength of purpose would you need? What weight would he have to carry? Those are things we wanted to convey through the story.

In this instance so many of us can relate to Noah in a way or another. Noah is obsessed with his mission, that he becomes blind. His wife (Jennifer Connelly) pleads with him to see the good in their sons – in humanity – which she does. But Noah is clear that the task is for humanity to cease in its existence.

Why does this happen? What causes Noah to become this way?

When Noah goes into the human camp, what we assume is to find wives for two of his sons, he is encountered with a wickedness that is overwhelming he cannot handle it. This scene, of animal tossing, cave man like behaviors, and the air filled with cries and hissing, is a pivotal scene. Under the cloak of darkness, a raw piece of meat is thrown over the fence. A longhaired, bearded man, walking like an ape, grabs the meat. He scuttles off, passing in front of Noah. Noah watches him as his chipped teeth bite into the raw meat. As the ape-like man turns to face Noah, he hisses. In that moment the man’s face looks an awful lot like Noah’s. (I only caught this the second time I saw the film.)

Noah sees wickedness in himself. And it changes him. It hardens his heart. And he becomes obsessed with his own wickedness. He is not worthy to be saved, so clearly God’s intention is for him to perish as well.

Is this in the Bible? Literally, no. The Genesis writer provides no account of what happened while Noah and his family were on the ark. But, it is Biblical? We can argue that it is.

We believe that God created the world, and it was good. We believe that God created humanity in the image of God, and God declared that it was good. We believe that sin entered the world and it distorted the image of God within humanity. We believe that the journey we call faith is a journey of redemption, restoring the image of God back to its original beauty. We believe that in the midst of this journey, evil exists. We believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God. We believe that through accepting the power of Jesus Christ, we reject the spiritual forces of wickedness.  And we believe that the day will come when there will be no more violence, no more crying, no more pain and suffering, only the peace of the Kingdom of God.

Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin.