Wonder Woman: “More than we deserve”

I finally saw Wonder Woman. Gathering my thoughts on this one might take a little while, so join me on a journey of discovery as we sort things out together. (Please don’t leave, that last sentence was a rhetorical device – I mean, I’m not a DC movie, after all.)

Cheap jokes aside, DC has finally crafted a solid film that keeps pace, maintains a consistent logic, gives characters fair amounts of screen time, and tends to favor the underdog in a way the previous DC films have been less than eager to. Wonder Woman contains good writing, great acting, and a diversity of cast that makes for a depth of world that has been missing in previous films.

So let’s start with the obvious – this is a female led production directed by Patty Jenkins, and acted by Gal Gidot. Both shine in their respective roles, taking risks by showing vulnerability and strength in just the right ratios to create realistic characters, while managing to lean into the inherent campiness of the superhero genre for the first time in a DC movie. (Suicide Squad doesn’t count, it lacked the joy that I think campiness should bring.) The first twenty minutes, at least, are entirely centered on women – of all ages and colors. The women are shown in multiple roles: from teachers, to warriors, to queens, to senators, to homemakers, and beyond. In such a short amount of time, Jenkins manages to truly show off the gamut of women’s roles – in a society run and inhabited by only women. (Can I just note, cynically, that it seems a little sad to need an island populated entirely by women in order to show off that diversity? I’m looking at you nearly every other major film.) Gal Gidot proves herself an immensely skilled actor being able to portray power and naivety in a way that holds both in tension but never drops either in favor of the other.

Which brings me to the writing. Diana’s (aka Wonder Woman) character faces the moral dilemma of choosing to see the good in humanity or to focus on the darkness in humanity’s heart. Diana’s eternal optimism and desire to save as many as possible is a rare treat in a DC film where destruction has been prioritized over the whole “superheroes are supposed to save people” idea. Diana is entirely focused on protecting the innocent lives caught up in the brutal realities of the WWI Western Front’s “meat grinder.” (You can thank Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast for that description.) Diana has several wonderful moments where she has the opportunity to speak out and call those in authority out on their selfishness, their privilege, and misuse of power. She is also the least sexualized superheroine currently in film. Her attractiveness may be part of the package, but it certainly has little to do with her character – she is first and foremost a woman on a mission.

As far as plot goes, my wife and I were both a little on the disappointed side that many of the major plot points seemed lifted directly from Captain America: The First Avenger. There were some truly unique moments though including Diana’s charge through no man’s land, Diana exploring her powers for the first time, and Diana’s relationship with her mother and aunt. There was an interesting twist involving several characters and actors as to who the real villain was – and I was pleasantly thrown off.

I had few real issues with this film. One, the shaky camera trend probably needs to go away for a few years and then come back as a piece of film vocabulary for when things really are chaotic in a character’s perspective. There was a couple of character details that seemed like they should have gone somewhere, but were left dangling. One, in particular, involved the Scottish character, Charlie, and his ability to perform on the battlefield which was mentioned once and then never showed up again.

One moment still has me scratching my head. In one scene near the end, a large explosion goes off near two main characters and the sound goes dead as if the characters’ have been temporarily deafened. We can’t hear what either character is saying very well, but a few minutes later the character recalls what was said in perfect clarity. So my question is, were we, as the audience, “deafened” by the explosion or were the characters? If the audience was, why bring up the conversation again? If the character was, how did they then recall it perfectly later? I do realize, that if this is my biggest complaint with the film, it did most everything else very well.

Ok, for the troublesome stuff. Cursing was kept to a minimum. I think I only heard a few at most – and seeing as the setting was World War I, it seemed rather mild. There are some nasty wounds shown and scenes of war where Diana finds herself faced with the horror of war and its effects on the soldiers and civilians, for example a shot that includes a soldier lying on the battlefield crying in pain and missing half of a leg. There are some scenes of drinking, in a pub, and after a victory, but again it feels more like setting the scene than glorifying the drinking. As far as sexual content, there are some awkward exchanges between Diana and Steve (the main love interest) but nothing is shown past a kiss. The bisexual nature of the Amazons is also more of subtext and allusion rather than stated out right. I can only think of two very short moments where it even arose. If you are not keen on violence, then maybe reconsider going to see a film set in WWI – otherwise the violence is pretty acrobatic and relatively bloodless.

The soundtrack is appropriate, but didn’t really stand out to me. The only track that sticks out is the current Wonder Woman theme that, as my wife pointed out, uses an electric cello to achieve its unique sound.

So I guess the real question is, would I take my daughter to see this movie? Well, technically, I did – she’s still in my wife’s tummy. Yes. When my daughter hits the preteen age, I think I would like her to see a movie that includes a strong, non-sexualized, vulnerable, opinionated, capable, intelligent woman as its lead character. DC finally pulled out a good film that has a character that I wouldn’t mind my daughter looking up to.

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Filling In Plotholes: Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

The 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast is arguably one of the best movies Disney ever made. The songs and story are strong enough to lend themselves to a Broadway interpretation as well as a new live-action adaptation released this week. My wife and I went to the Thursday night showing, because we just couldn’t wait until “opening night.”

Full disclosure: my wife and I love the original. In fact, we loved it so much that we inadvertently played Belle and Beast in two separate productions of the musical in towns on opposite ends of our state the same year. So we have spent a good amount of time with the story and songs of both the movie and stage production. Even after being surrounded by it for months at a time and with over a hundred views between the two of us of the animated version, it is safe to say we still love this movie.

Going into the viewing, we were interested to see the changes and what the director and art designers had come up with for each of our characters. Looking at stills, I can say I wasn’t a huge fan of the art design when it came to the characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth, but they grew on me and I began to accept the new art style as a unique take on the characters. I did miss some of the original voice cast, but due to age or death, we could not have all of them back.

Right out of the gate, this movie drips with amazing costume design and a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack. The costume reflect the period of French history that the story would have taken place, and the references to historical events such as wars and plagues give the world a stronger pull of reality than the animated version. My wife and I were floored at the attention to detail of both the set design and costuming that both paid homage to the familiar look of the animated film, while creating a solid, more realistic world for these characters to inhabit. The opening narration and score brought chills again, but with added visuals that created a greater sense of urgency than the stained-glass approach.

I have to give it to the writers this time around: they listened. Beauty and the Beast has been a whipping boy for unanswered questions in a film since it was released. I cannot tell you how many videos and articles I have read jokingly teasing the 1991 film for the amount of details that were glossed over that would have allowed for a more compelling story. In this retelling, we discover what happened to Belle’s mother, learn about Beast’s family life, why the villagers seem to have no idea about the gigantic castle not so very far away, and even why the servants were implicated in the curse as well. It felt at times as if the writers were cleverly nodding and winking when these details were given.

Speaking of writing, every character gets an upgraded story that makes them more relate-able, especially LeFou and the Beast. The Beast’s banter with Belle creates a much more believable relationship, while LeFou is given some genuine challenges and complex moral choices. Overall, I was happy that each character was given a fair shake and their characters fleshed out with their dialogue and choices as well literally being “fleshed out” by this being live action. The Beast is also much less terrifying and “beast-like” in this version, coming across much more like a wounded person than animalistic. (That said, the wolves have gotten an upgrade in intensity, so do be wary of that.) Each character has the ability to make choices, or has made choices in the past that affect the plot. It is refreshing when every character has agency, especially the female characters (Belle, Mrs. Potts, even the wardrobe and village women.) Belle is especially bold in this version, shedding whatever demure qualities she had in the animated film for a more confrontational nature that does get her into trouble – receiving some direct abuse from the villagers for teaching a young girl to read. (I was also very impressed at the fairness given to the Catholic, I assume, priest. For one, the priest is black – hooray! And second, the priest is the one villager who seems to respect and support Belle and her father. I was a little disappointed he disappeared near the end of the film, but I did not spot him in the angry mob, except to try and stop Maurice’s capture.)

This film is much less about fate and magic than it is about facing the choices and the consequences that follow. Some characters make truly heartbreaking decisions, and the weight of those decisions shape the overall mood of the story. And, honestly, this aspect makes this movie a must-see. Children need to be shown that they always have a choice, and those choices often have consequences that can’t be fully realized. I was truly encouraged by the way this film handled it’s message about choice without using the sledgehammer to beat the audience.

Ok, I’ve put it off as long as possible. I know you’re here for my take on the “controversy.” I will tell you, though, that you’re going to feel silly about all the outrage. LeFou isn’t really “gay” unless you really picture him that way. Otherwise, he’s just a bullied man who has a heart that shows as he struggles with the choices placed in front of him. The “crossdressing” scene is done completely for laughs, one of the tough brutes being tossed into a dress and preening to the camera for a second. And, really, it felt like the “bros” you know who have done the cheerleading for mock homecoming powder puff games who prance and preen as a joke. It’s not offensive, unless you’re looking for it. And lastly, I missed the guy couple dancing. It may have 2-3 frames at the most, because I blinked and heard my wife say, “There it is!” I watched this movie with an eye toward the controversy and came out chuckling to myself at how overworked everyone had gotten.

So, I give this movie a 9.5/10. I know I don’t usually give ratings like that. But I need you to know how highly I feel about this film. I still love the original, but this adaptation is so darn near perfect that I have to give it a high score. Understand that there is so much I didn’t discuss in this review: the well-composed new songs, the combining of animated, Broadway, and original fairy tale sources to create a unique experience, and the added humor and one-liners. Go see this film. Take your family. If you need to, preview the film, and then have the joy of being able to see this film twice!

 

 

Movie Review: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts

I understand that my movie reviews tend to come a little late to the party, but one a limited budget, we see these things when we can, which is usually why these reviews end up coming in twos. So Christmas weekend, my wife and I were blessed to receive some gift money, and we decided it was high time we saw some movies that were still in theaters and not five months after the DVD release. We visited two different local theaters in order to see one movie per day (Friday and Saturday) and managed to not overtax our minds.

I’ll start with Fantastic Beasts, since the Harry Potter universe is what helped kickstart my love of reading and fantasy, and possibly even writing in general. This is a movie crafted for my age and my generation, as the main protagonist is a full-fledged adult, and not a child going through a coming of age narrative. First off, I don’t remember there being much language, only light sexual scenarios and flirting, but plenty of violence, child abuse, and manipulation, as well as some religious themes that we’ll get to later. Honestly, I cannot recommend this for anyone younger than twelve, and certainly not without a discussion afterwards.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the misadventures of Newt Scamander and his difficulty acclimatizing to the American magical community. Societal rules are far different and much more strict than in Britain with so much care being taken that magical and non-magical persons are not allowed to marry. Regardless, a non-magical man gets pulled into this magical world, and we get to see the wonder of Newt’s vast menagerie of magical creatures which range from cute, to ferocious, to terrifying.

Without spoiling the ending, let’s talk about the religious themes and child abuse present in this movie. Arguably, we can say that child abuse was present in the neglect and mistreatment of Harry Potter in the original series, but here the abuse is much more visceral with actual physical violence shown and implied. The religious society in this movie is fundamentally founded on opposing magic and its users as evil and corrupt. And the leader of this society is the main originator of the child abuse shown.

The main discussions I can see coming out of viewing this movie would tangle with sidelined groups who do not feel heard (Matthew 5), violence and abuse (Matthew 5-7), the importance and care of pets and other animals (Genesis 1-2), and maybe even some about the final decision of the US magical government in dealing with the final threat, asking what your child would have done or tried differently.

Rogue One, though lacking the pulse-pounding, ear thrumming  John Williams theme along with an opening crawl manages to capture the desperation and struggle of a rag-tag alliance who feel they are doing the right thing in opposing an oppressive Imperial power bent on domination through violence. The Rebel Alliance prepares for war by seeking out plans for the Empire’s new (yet familiar to most of us) weapon – the Death Star. The most impressive feat of this movie is that removing the credits from Rogue One and the opening text crawl of A New Hope would allow these movies to be played back to back as one (long) seamless movie.

Now, my enjoyment of this movie does come down a bit when considering how much darker this feels than A New Hope or even The Force Awakens. This feels, as I have heard others say, like a war movie. (Ironic, isn’t it?) Desperation drives characters to extremes, causing deaths, leading to more anger, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the good of others. Death does seem to be a main story-driving force in this movie as the death toll for named characters seems higher here than many of the other movies. And for the first time ever, I felt myself actually afraid of the iconic villain Darth Vader in one of the final action sequences. If you are familiar with Hamlet or Game of Thrones, you know the deal coming into this movie – don’t get attached to anyone. So when it comes to younger children seeing this movie, I may recommend waiting a few years, as before, til around 11 or 12. Some discussion you might have: working together as a team, courage in the face of danger, self-giving sacrifice, violence and its consequences, and maybe even civil disobedience in regards to Jyn’s father’s efforts to stymie the Empire’s plans over and over again.

I have to praise both of these movies for different things. One, romance was not the main driver for either of these plots. Men and women were able to work together, share the spotlight, and solve problems without getting too romantically tangled. Rogue One does more to make sure relationships seem purely professional, but the romantic subplots in Fantastic Beasts weren’t distracting in any way. Both showed strong female characters who were active rather than passive and were only dependent in the sense that each team depended on one another for survival and success. These characters were flawed, but accepted those flaws, struggled through those flaws, and grew on account of that struggle, which is so important. Good characters were good, bad characters were bad, and those in the gray area were treated as ambiguously as their morality.

The next section is completely conjecture and may be me reading too much into these films, but it may be worth considering.

And now I will talk about context and art.Stories mean something. They means something in their immediate context, in the cultural context in which they occur and are viewed, and in the context of the individual’s experience. In our current context, these movies have something to say about our current cultural situation.

Rogue One wants to illustrate what happens when opposition groups go to the extreme, when violence becomes unhinged and desperate. In a notable scene, a group of Rebel extremists (which is what they are called in the movie) stage a surprise attack on the occupying Imperial forces who are present on this particular planet to take mineral resources to power their military. This does sound particularly close to the current situation across the world where certain groups feel pressured and desperate and lash out with extreme hatred and violence toward whomever they see as their oppressor. This movie might spark discussions about foreign relations, how diplomacy should work, and how each of us can work to make sure no one feels outcast or unheard. And Rogue One does a good job of showing how those that use violence to further their goals usually end up succumbing to that violence themselves as retaliation after retaliation ratchet up the casualty counters.

Fantastic Beasts also has a sub plot with its main villain that deals with people who feel marginalized, which is a loaded word, I’m aware. Questions are asked about who certain laws protect, which side has to work harder to prevent violence (magical or non-magical), and what responsible use of power looks like. One could easily (from the religious side) see this as a critique of the way those of the LGBTQ community have been treated over the past thirty or so years. But, looking deeper, we can all see this as an opportunity to look around us and consider who feels unheard, oppressed, or silenced. And then the question becomes directed to the viewer: how are those in the majority and those in power using their station to influence the lives of others for the better? Or better yet: am I the one with power, or the one without, and what am I doing about it? Either way, some discussion could be had here concerning how we treat others.

Long, strange section done.

I enjoyed both of these movies. I don’t necessarily recommend these to kids on account of their darker themes and some fairly scary images, but with parental guidance, I think these movies could create some great dialogue. So whether you’re into Apparating and Quidditch or are one with the Force and trying to get your time on the Kessel Run down, I think you’ll enjoy these movies for their structure, character, action, and fantastical realms.

Batmeh V Supermeh (A movie Review)

I feel… conflicted about this movie from a personal standpoint. I feel like the actors did well with their roles and didn’t overact too much. (Except for Lex Luthor, who they turned into the Joker.) The special effects in this Wagner-esque saga were quite well done, even if the camera work looked like a middle-school film project. (Can we please be done with the shaky-cam trend, now, please?) And about an hour of the run time could have been cut and very little would have been lost.

Usual bits here: violence (punching and stabbing and shooting), bit of language, some sexuality (bathtub scene), and an overall dark and oppressive tone that might be a bit much for some kids.

So, the main conflict here advertised heavily in advance of Marvel’s Civil War film with a similar premise felt shoehorned and forced. Superman and Batman had very little reason to actually fight, even though their ideals differed… that’s kind of the point of having the two characters together. Anyway, I haven’t been the biggest fan of DCs latest trend of gritty re-imaginings of their characters turning them into sociopathic murderers to pad out the tension. I won’t tell you who “wins” the fight, but let’s say that by the time you’ve sat through the build up, you’ll find yourself mentally shouting, “What’s the point!?”

I think the real issue here is that the production company is trying to create a franchise similar to the Marvel films, but doesn’t quite know how to set up future movies without being confusing. Then again, DC comics is no stranger to confusion, having to restart its entire comic book line several times because its own fans and creators couldn’t keep up anymore.

So why even bring up this joyless, gritty, forced confrontation between two beloved heroes? Because there’s some deep thought from the writers/director that you should know about!

And by deep thought, I mean some philosophical pondering by the semi-insane Lex Luthor. Having been turned from the traditional presentation of put-together, self-made businessman with an ego the size of Asia, Luthor is now a wacky, loose-cannon inheritor of a technology company and a self-stated abuse victim. Why mention this? Abuse is serious business and it needs to be discussed. Often times it gets tossed around as a short-hand excuse as to why a character has so many moral or mental flaws. And here, it feels that way. There’s no nuance, there’s little struggle, and it gets a halfhearted mention during a standoff with Superman.

The thought that stuck with me is the idea that because of the abuse he suffered, “God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful.” And this is an idea that gets tossed around a lot in today’s society. If God is all-good and all-powerful, he’d straighten everything out and no one would ever have anything bad happen. Conversely, because bad stuff happens he either doesn’t care or cannot act.

And this is where the big sticking point is for your family if you watch this film. How do you discuss this? Does the Bible even talk about this?

Part of this movie centers around the idea that humans would begin assuming Superman is some kind of god or messiah-like figure. (Hard to miss with all of the Christ imagery the director throws around like party confetti.) We see scenes of people bowing, reverencing, and treating Superman as if he were a holy being. Luthor’s scheme then is to “prove that god can be killed or corrupted.”

The Bible is clear that bad things happen to everyone. Why? Each day we make choices, and if we’re honest, many of them end up hurting others. We can justify our actions, but it doesn’t change the fact that we hurt people. And if the way we purchase, speak, or act causes the suffering of others, can we then ask the question, “Why me?” God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous – God shows love to those who follow him and those who don’t. (Matthew 5.43-45) We all have good days and we all have bad days. Life is tough and full of danger and pain, but also full of joy and love. To blame God for every problem we have is a little short-sighted and selfish.

God has worked, is working, and will work to set things right. At the moment all of creation waits, groaning in anticipation of the day when God renews the world. (Romans 8.20-25) God also often chooses to work through His people who have caught a passion for His mission. So when I hear, “Why doesn’t God do _______?” My first reaction is, “What are you doing about it? Maybe you’re the one to do it!”

Think about the kind of conversation you might have with your child as you watch movies together. Anticipate what questions they might have. Look for the moments where you see echoes of Jesus’ story to latch on to and use.

Book (Author) Review: Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase (and more!)

So this is probably my first book review on this blog. I was hoping to do more of this type of thing, but current events and my own easily distractible mind had me hovering over some more pressing topics. Today, we revisit the whole “talking about a pop culture thing and how it works into our own faith/life” thing.

Let me begin by stating my biases right up front: Rick Riordan is a fantastic author with a unique penchant for wit, sarcasm, humor, and the ability to weave a tales that are so different and at the same time familiar. I am one of those adults who have, I admit, had one of his books on pre-order for months and then read the entire thing in less than a week (with a busy schedule.)

Riordan’s unique characters include a startlingly diverse range of family situations, personalities, and voices that can easily spark discussion with each new chapter. He also draws heavily on mythologies including (at the moment) Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Norse. The protagonists are well-intentioned, flawed individuals who give nothing else than their best while learning the value of companionship, courage, and even sacrifice. These characters feel startlingly real at times as they struggle with single-parent homes, death, poverty, and race, all while battling against forces of evil that are seemingly unbeatable.

Riordan also does a great job at setting, I would say, recommended age levels for when to read these books, in a similar way that J.K. Rowling did with her Harry Potter series. The issues covered and the challenges faced often coincide with the maturity level of the protagonist of the book, so an 11-year-old Percy deals with struggles that an average 11-year-old might deal with (aside from battling the occasional monster.)

So you’re probably wondering, “Well, you seem pretty positive on the books. Why write a post about them?” Fancy that, I was just about to answer that question.

The fictional universe of this book does assume that the gods of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology are very much real and capable of affecting the world by their actions. This can be both a challenge and a tool for Christian families. On the one hand, this will need some careful discussion to talk about the difference between fiction and reality (a conversation probably already covered) and also the difference between these gods and the God of Christianity. The gods depicted in these books can be selfish, fickle, and hold long grudges against specific characters, whereas we believe God is loving, faithful, and forgiving. The characters also have to struggle with faith (read here also “trust”) in their godly fathers (or mothers) in order to help them get past certain struggles or challenges. What better kickstarter to a conversation about prayer and our relationship with our Father in Heaven than to read about preteens and teens who have to work that sort of thing out during a battle or some perilous trial?

The latest book Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer dives into the life of Magnus Chase, a 16-year-old orphan living on the street. (A great conversation starter on how we interact with and treat those who are living with homelessness and what Jesus commands us to do about that problem!) He meets friends who are very different from him, including a girl who is still in the midst of dealing with the repercussions of being a Muslim interacting with Norse gods. The usual wit and humor are present in this novel, alongside some more mature themes such as arranged marriage, violence, and death. There are some wonderful moments where violence proves to not be the best option, which is always exciting to see, especially in a novel about Viking/Norse culture which thrived on many forms of violence. (And can I say, it is painful to write this much without mentioning a single spoiler for any of these series!)

I would encourage seeking out different points of view to challenge us, especially through books and subsequent discussions. These book series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Kane Chronicles, The Heroes of Olympus, and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard) can give kids adventures, relatable characters, and an opportunity to think through how they approach life and faith.

If you haven’t given these books a chance, yet, I highly recommend them for late elementary and preteen aged students. I also recommend reading along with your children so that you will be prepared when those conversations do come up, and because you might just find yourself enjoying them as much as your kids!

What books or series do your and your family love? Which ones have challenged you or your kids to think hard about life or faith?