Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lights in the Darkness

Hey everyone, I've started a dedicated film blog at  Check it out if you're interested.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blank Comedy

Death to Smoochy or Friday?

"Tasteful Child-Killing"

I have almost no exposure to The Hunger Games, but I found some comments from this review to be insightful about the way blockbuster film-making tends to sanitize certain themes for the sake of mass appeal.  The fact that the theme in this case is child sacrifice makes the point ever more potent.

"The audience at Monday’s packed preview of The Hunger Games came out juiced and happy, ready to spread the good word, while all I could think was,They’ve just seen a movie in which twenty-plus kids are murdered. Why aren’t they devastated? If the filmmakers had done their job with any courage, the audience would have been both juiced and devastated."
"If the movie’s director, Gary Ross, has qualms about kids killing kids he doesn’t share them with the audience. The murders onscreen are quick and, apart from a mean girl stung to death by wasps, clean. The cutting is so fast that you can hardly see what’s happening, which has already won Ross praise for his restraint, his tastefulness. Tasteful child-killing!"
"By taking the sting out of death, he has a made a slaughterfest for the whole family."
"But where is the pervasive, lingering sense of loss? Where is the horror? Maybe the true horror is how easily the movie goes down."
The problem of sanitization is endemic to the economics of film-making, so this outcome should come as no surprise.  I think these words grabbed because of my sneaking suspicion that I'm about to be seeing lots of Facebook updates about how awesome The Hunger Games movie is.

On the other hand, how awesome would it be if the film's tagline in posters and movie trailers was:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, reviewed.

The Planet of the Apes series is a vintage science fiction film and television saga detailing the decline of the human race and Earth's eventual takeover by super-intelligent simians. It began in 1968 with Charlton Heston as a astronaut crash-landed on what he believes to be an alien planet where apes hunt and enslave man until the film's big ending: it's Earth! That shouldn't be a spoiler for most people--Fox studios didn't seem to think so, as Rise (hereafter, RotPotA) presumes this ending--but here's the dramatic and iconic reveal even Madagascar assumes you'll understand:

Having only seen the first film, I have no idea how the most recent film coheres with the Apes canon, so to speak, except to say that I learned from IMDb that Battle for the Planet of the Apes does in fact feature a super-intelligent ape named Caesar leading the simian uprising against the human race.

Where RotPotA picks up, it's roughly the modern day and Dr. Will Rodman (a miscast James Franco) is researching an Alzheimer's cure by treating chimpanzees with gene therapy. Actually, if you've seen Deep Blue Sea, the premise is cut and pasted from that film but with monkeys switched out for sharks. Nevertheless, RotPotA is exhibit A for Ebert's maxim that a movie is not good because of what it's about, but because of how it's about it--i.e. it's all in, you know, they way they tell the story. Franco aside, the film does an excellent job of: (1) grounding and humanizing its premise and (2) executing its conflict and resolution with panache.

The always-excellent John Lithgow plays the doctor's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Some of the most intriguing parts of the film juxtapose his mental decay with the ape's mental enhancement--it's not every summer action film that skillfully shows the distance between species collapsing. I was reminded of the contrasting trajectories of 2001, which shows ape being lifted up into humanity, and the rest of Stanley Kubrick's films, which generally depict some form of dehumanization. Writing about The Shining, the late great film critic Pauline Kael wrote, "The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack's axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape." These ideas are central to the Apes saga, which, based on the original film, seem to have been first intended as a commentary on fundamentalism, science and evolution during a time of radical social upheaval (the 1960s).

As for the execution, it's the apes that make this movie, and rightly so. Weta Digital--Peter Jackson's kiwi answer to Lucas's ILM--brings the Avatar magic once again, this time making fully digital creations intended to blend naturalistically with everyday settings. They are fantastic specifically for not drawing attention to themselves: the effects exist to render nuanced performances and complex and dangerous sequences which animal actors could never have pulled off. Andy Serkis (of Gollum and Kong fame) serves as the mo-cap actor for the prime primate Caesar, non-verbally communicating the rise of higher consciousness in an animal and thereafter autonomy and open rebellion. It's a fascinating process to behold.

Caesar's rebellion foments and plays out in the typical manner of narratives of uprising and revolt. He first comes to detest his human captivity after encountering a leashed dog while being walked in the woods by the doctor and his girlfriend (the beautiful Freida Pinto). He is placed in an ape sanctuary by court order after violently protecting Lithgow's confused Alzheimer's patient from a belligerent neighbor. There is mistreated, establishes group dominance, and escapes in order to spread the gene therapy that could make more monkeys smarter and rise up against their, er, captors. This all leads to a so-so climax on a fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge where the apes go toe-to-toe with human law enforcement and where, presumably, the first ape ever rides horseback (an iconic image from the Heston film).

In short, it's heady, exciting fun with a B-movie premise and an eye towards (quasi-)naturalism. However, the film barely exceeds ninety minutes, and the ending feels undercooked and rushed as a result. Additionally, there is a subplot about the gene-therapy virus infecting and killing humans that is meant to wrap-up some loose questions (wouldn't the national guard just go into the redwoods and shoot all the monkeys dead?). But it feels cheaply cribbed from the excellently demented 12 Monkeys as well as flagrantly at odds with the underlying nuclear implications of the original movie. But if you're just looking for a good time from Redbox, I'd say it's more than worth the $1.27.

*btw, if you haven't seen Planet of the Apes (I hadn't, before yesterday), it's streaming on Netflix right now. It's a lot better than you would guess, and is probably second only to 2001 in terms of 1960s science fiction films.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Conversion & Justice

I think our prayers are sometimes too tame. Tame, yes, through lack of faith or theological imagination; even tame for lack of zeal. I think "feeling it" is relevant to our petitions. It's not everything, but it's not nothing. And I'm preaching to myself.

But it's not even these things which have been bothering me lately. I only just put my finger on the fact that much of our prayer--especially corporate prayer--is misdirected. Or rather, not focused on the center of the church's relation to the world: "Your kingdom come." I am hard pressed to think of any truly God-centered prayer which is not somehow included in that simple petition.

I in no way want to downplay the church's identity as a gentle and healing presence in and among the world, but it seems to me that predominantly construing our identity in those terms too easily colludes with the entrenched sinful ways of the world, too easily relegates the church to the role of chaplain to the status quo.

On the other hand, there can be a kind of attempt to engage the status quo--the vast self-preserving web of socioeconomic, racial, political and personal realities we call society--that is well-meaning but misguided. Not everyone will know what I mean here, but there are times when people want to pray for our world in ways which intend "kingdom come" but are really just manifestations of their personal passions and interests.

What I want to say to everyone is that our corporate prayer life should mostly be about conversion and justice. I'm leaving aside, for the sake of this post, how our corporate prayer life intersects with our primary Christian calling to love God with all of our hearts. I assume anything and everything relevant to that must necessarily be central to our personal and public Christian lives. But right now I'm ranting about something that bugs me, so I'm not going to talk about the other stuff right now.

There is a big hurting world out there and its two biggest needs are the intimate knowledge of God leading to holy love and the loving charity of its Christian resident-alien neighbors. It's easier, I think, to engage personal and family-system oriented concerns; easier to engage broad and impersonal social concerns (i.e. the decline of public morality, abortion), than it is to hone in on where the rubber meets the road of "kingdom come." I am emphatically not saying that Christians should not be invested in broadly impersonal social concerns, or that the typical concerns of boomer "moral majority" Christians are illegitimate. I am also not saying that intensely personal pastoral work doesn't matter--just ask any one of my seminary faculty who has served me pastorally these past two and a half years whether or not I should be able to grasp the blessings of that ministry. I am simply disturbed by what I see as secondary concerns or corollary concerns displacing the "rubber meets the road" of kingdom come.

I know that many of my fellow seminarians and (post-)evangelical twenty-somethings have been hurt by the church specifically because they focused on conversion and justice and left sensitive pastoral care by the wayside (and often gave undue prominence to those moral majority social concerns). I speak as one among your ranks. But I fear throwing out the Messianic baby with the bath water. We need all of these things. And I know that many of us have a deep-seated fear of being identified with George W. Bush and everything he represented (this fear is why I think Blue Like Jazz was such a hit), but that doesn't mean that conservative, congregational evangelicals get everything, or even most things, wrong.

I am deeply thankful to the biblical and spiritual values I received from my fundamentalist-charismatic church and home life. I also had to run away from them (the communities, not the values) because they were driving me crazy. But, as my friends doing an independent study on American denominationalism have learned, it's the Baptists and Methodists who evangelized this continent. I have to ask myself whether that or the status quo looks more like the Great Commission.