Saturday, September 6, 2014

Movie Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy, Catching Fire, 47 Ronin, and More…

Redbox has become a middle road between the convenience of Netflix and the tangibility of what once was Blockbuster. Do you remember Blockbuster? It was a movie library, where you could go and peruse the classics on the shelves as well as pick up the new releases advertised around the wall. This was how I saw Terminator as late as 2008. But the internet era killed Blockbuster. The prices for rentals and the 7-day return was a relic of a pre-internet era. I mean, most of the movies were in VHS format! After this, my family finally joined the 21st century and got ourselves a DVD player. Now a new contender has popped up, taking advantage of the ease of storage of DVDs and securing a reliable business model with one-day rental, allowing the prices to be low, ensuring customer loyalty. Redbox has become an overnight hit and I see them everywhere. There are at least five that I’m aware of in my town, at gas stations and supermarkets, but there are probably several more, and we’ve definitely taken up the habit of bringing home a movie in the evening some days and returning it the next morning after watching it. The calculus is too appealing to forgo: I can go to the movies and pay $8 for a ticket, $13 for 3D, and double that price if I’m paying for another person because I’m treating them. Compare this to the $1.20 price (increased once, so far, after starting at a flat rate of $1) of any DVD at Redbox. I can watch every single blockbuster of a single year for the price of taking me and one other person to the movies. This leaves plenty of room for snacks, not to mention that I can choose when to watch it, which is a convenience not afforded by small theaters, and it offers the opportunity to watch a broader range of movies than I might otherwise bother to go to theaters for. I would suspect that Redbox has therefore been a boon to independent films, and films that don’t get wide releases or make it to the aforementioned small theaters. In summary: all but one of the following I have watched on a Redbox rental, the sole exception being Guardians of the Galaxy, which we had to stay up til 9:30 for the latest showing, getting out around midnight, all just to avoid giving 3D a chance to ruin it for us. I don’t need 3D gimmicks to tell me that Object X is in front of Object Y. My eyes’ depth perception works just fine with a flat image, and the 3D glasses make the picture less sharp, which is my biggest irritation with it. A useless gimmick is one thing, but for it to reduce the picture quality? Why am I paying more for this, again?!

On to the reviews!

I determined that I could group some of the observations I made from these into different categories. Seeing everything through a lens of Christian theology is making me pick up on intriguing themes, whether intentional or unintentional as far as the director/producers are concerned. Some of the movies have little applicable themes, like Lone Survivor, which since it was made to be an accurate retelling doesn’t try to go outside of its realm, artistically speaking. The Last Days on Mars is another example of one without any sort of Christian parallels, seeing as it was (to my surprise) a good old-fashioned space zombies horror thriller. I’m honest with this and if I don’t pick up on something that I consider poignant, I won’t try to pigeonhole a movie to mean something it doesn’t. Yet, several of the movies were fascinating in this regard. Others were just good because they didn’t have “unnecessary gratuitous boobies” or suchlike.

There will be some spoilers.
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Poignant Relating to Christian Persecution

Closed Circuit (Eric Bana) and Dead Man Down (Colin Farrel) Compared

These two films offered two different resolutions to the problem of the central character being a victim of a conspiracy and trying to fight the system to bring about justice. One was extralegal (DMD) and one was a courtroom drama (CC). I found Dead Man Down satisfying in the final scene, because it had the main character singlehandedly take on his enemies, show mercy to his friend on the enemies’ side, rescue the kidnap victim, and frame a bad guy for killing the other bad guy’s brother, causing them to turn on each other, all in a few short minutes. The plan went off without a hitch. But it’s not realistic. There were so many non-guaranteed variables that it wouldn’t be very likely to happen just that way in real life. In other words, it’s not something that speaks very directly to each individual. The desire to set things right, yes—that’s what made it satisfying. But the deus-ex-machina-esque ending is not something that everyone can apply to their own lives. Sometimes things go wrong and you can’t do anything about it. This is why Closed Circuit was so intriguing to me. More on that in a bit.

First I’d like to detour to mention a subplot that offered a fascinating ethics conundrum: Noomi Rapace’s character had been in a car accident that disfigured her, causing her to endure torment from neighborhood kids and diminished career opportunities. She witnesses Colin Farrel’s character murdering someone, and tries to extort him to be her hitman: kill the man responsible for her scars, or she would turn Farrel over to the police. It’s a well-constructed What Would You Do, and there were ample opportunities to think about it as the movie went along. But perhaps the bigger morality question is, since Farrel survived his family’s execution, is his desire for vengeance right? Is killing the man who killed his family the right resolution, the best way to spend his new chance at life? And if he is exacting this revenge on his own tormentor, what basis of morality can he stand on to refuse to do the very same thing for another person—does eye-for-an-eye justice only apply to him but not others? I think the film successfully made you think about these issues if you had a mind for pointing out the conflicts within the larger narrative.

The big difference between DMD and CC is that in DMD the hero wins—and does so by getting his hands dirty, very dirty—whereas in CC there is no hope for the lead character to do anything by his own power to save the day, once the final door closes. CC concerns a terrorist trial in the UK, where there are two prosecutors, a public and a private one, and only the private prosecutor gets access to special evidence. But the public prosecutor (Bana) discovers evidence that Mi5 (equivalent to the CIA) had been attempting to use the terrorist to take down a larger network. To maintain the cover for the sting operation, they supplied him with the very weapons he used to blow up a tanker truck, killing dozens or hundreds of people. It would be a major scandal if the news got out, and public opinion could result in Mi5 losing the ability to use the same tactics to infiltrate terror cells in the future. Motive being the preservation of their tools to fight terror, Mi5 does their darndest to cover up their involvement, including killing Bana’s previous law partner, and even arranging to have his ex-fiancee be the private prosecutor, so that if anything came out, a mistrial could be declared, on suspicion of their involvement, because they weren’t allowed to have any communication. Are you hanging with me? So there’s a dangerous conspiracy with not the whole government, mind you, just one powerful branch of it, and also the Attorney General (or UK equivalent) who tells Bana in cryptic, sleazily covering-his-own-behind statements, to leave it alone and back off. Anyhoo, skipping the climax, when they finally get to the courtroom to present the evidence in the private hearing, the trial is stopped because the terrorist has died in his cell of an apparent suicide by hanging. Mi5 had failed to prevent the prosecutors from getting the evidence, so they ensured that the evidence would not be necessary, by removing the need for a trial by killing the defendant. The attorneys are free to go, since if they don’t speak to the press, they are not considered a liability and will not be bothered by Mi5.  The movie ends differently from most movies. The bad guys, who aren’t clearly bad in their motives, but certainly sinister in their execution, are still alive and powerful. The good guys don’t “win.” They just survive. They sit on the edge of the Thames and ponder what happened, and as the movie fades out, we hear Parliament begin to rouse over accusations of a cover-up, giving a glint of hope that perhaps the truth would come out and wrong would be set right, in time.

As I contemplated these movies, I thought that their divergent resolutions paralleled the different outcomes of Christian persecution, in various locales at various dates. Sometimes when someone comes to kill you, they get thwarted. But sometimes you just die. Nazi persecution ended with the Allied Invasion. Middle Eastern persecution isn’t ending. There’s rarely a strong hero who comes and destroys the enemies. In fact, the ones who fight the ones who are now killing you, are often also people who want to kill you, too. So in Syria, where the Assad government is bombing civilians, the “Free Syrian Army” is walking around and taking time off from freedom-fighting to enforce Sharia and kill Christians. The value of CC was how it showed the futility of struggle. Sometimes the truth comes out and what is crooked gets straightened out, but it takes a long time and usually happens through forces far beyond your control or influence. In other words, your heroism hardly matters. And then on the other hand, there are opposite scenarios, where one person’s small actions can have huge impacts on the lives of others, simply by offering them protection. It could mean your life. In this world, where persecution really rages, whether you’re a victim or a hero, your enemies still overcome you. Such is the reality of the Christian struggle, that we often won’t see the relieving resolution of the story. God is working at much higher levels than our personal actions, and the most important moment of our lives might simply be when we die. We need to be willing to accept that we don’t matter very much. We don’t have to stress that the world is corrupt, that evil is covered up and those who do good are persecuted—we know that God is ordering all the details, and He will have the final word.

Catching Fire and The Book Thief also fit into this category, but see them discussed below.

Poignant Relating to Christian Themes of Struggle

Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone)

No one else is accountable for our choices, and we are only accountable for our own.

This movie certainly didn’t try to cast Peter Parker as a messiah figure, nor was the theme of the previous trilogy, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ very prominent (perhaps alluded to in the final minutes). If there was a larger theme in this movie, it seemed to be about the strained relationships that occur when you’re faced with the choice of keeping secrets, or keeping yourself, from people you care about in order to protect them. This happened with Peter and his love interest, Peter and his aunt, Peter and his dad, and Peter and Harry Osborne. In the end, the question to answer is whether Peter’s choices resulted in, or in fact had no effect on Emma Stone’s character’s, and Harry Osborne’s, choices that led to the fateful climax of the movie. In terms of Christian themes, the movie doesn’t really appear to contain them intentionally, although there are some plotlines that can be critiqued from a theological lens. The notion that we are all responsible for our own actions, and that we are not responsible for the actions of others, is the big takeaway I would propose. I already referred to this in regard to Peter’s guilt over what happens with Harry and his not-Mary-Jane girlfriend (not having internet at home makes my writing seem a lot less professional). But it’s also a big deal with the main enemy of the movie, Jamie Foxx’s Electro. The man suffers from an inferiority complex, which in turn fuels a profoundly arrogant ego. When he becomes an antihero, his feelings of social rejection are amplified even more when he is shot by police in front of a crowd cheering Spider-Man, whereas Spider-Man had promised that no one would hurt him. Rage outpacing reason, Electro’s arrogance turned to hatred of the man who was loved more than he. He would seek to destroy Spider-Man in revenge, although in the end it was he who was destroyed. He blamed Spider-Man for everything that was wrong in his life, when the root of most of his own problems, arguably all of them, was himself. He refused to accept it, and the direct, sequential outcome of that was the final climax of the movie where Spider-Man, who never wanted to be his enemy, defeats him with a heart full of regret. What a nearly-exact parallel to the fist-shaking God-hatred and ultimate end of the unregenerate sinner. Nevertheless, I highly doubt the Hollywood writers were intending to make Jamie (“our lord and savior, Barack Obama!”) Foxx into a metaphor for the earthly life of those bound for hell—it’s just such a ubiquitous theme in reality (pride turning to hatred turning to revenge leading to death) that even nonchristians accept, that there was probably no concern that it would be seen as a “religious angle” to the script, and so made its way into the movie. But even so, I was able to draw this parallel out of it, and you might find the movie more intriguing to watch when you consider it from this perspective. It is, after all, the unintentional metaphors that are the most fun to discover or analogize. So long as you don’t stretch reason to pigeon-hole a message into somewhere where it doesn’t adhere.

300: Rise of an Empire (Sullivan Stapleton)

American Freedom/Democracy/Exceptionalism vs the War on Terror, as Portrayed by Greece and Persia.

It’s the West vs the East, just safely filmed in an ancient setting as a hagiographic documentary, so as not to rouse suspicion that the movie plays on an “us vs them” mentality to drive up ticket sales. Daniel Greenfield wrote a fascinating piece on summer blockbusters a year or two ago, which made the case that alien invasion movies are so popular because they are extended metaphors for the types of movies that We the Public would actually go see, but which aren’t made: civilizational warfare, in particular Western Civilization versus Islamic Civilization. This same argument could have been made about the Communists in the 50s-60s, and indeed they were the biggest threat (from without) back then, but the biggest external threat to the West now is what the politically correct would call “radical islam,” or “Islamism,” or “jihadism,” even, but which others would simply call Islam. What you call it depends on your personal relationship with politics and religion, but the fact remains that there is in every generation an outside threat that the majority of the Public is subconsciously aware of, and which their anxieties provoke them to think about and make the subject of discourse and literature. Consequently, movies with superheroes and movies with invading armies of robots, aliens, zombies etc are perennially popular because they speak to the innate human desire to want to be relieved of this anxiety: to see the hordes of your enemies vanquished and peace brought back to the land. 300 does not exist in a void apart from this phenomenon. It sports the Democratic, Free and Civilized people of Europe versus the barbarian armies of the Middle East, ruled by an autocrat/religious figure who dreams of conquering the world and subjugating its people under his rule. A further comparison is the classic film trope of the good guys being obviously more moral than the bad guys—this film utilizes several scenes to drive home the point that the Persians, or at least Artemisia, had no regard for the dignity or value of human life, let alone a concept of mercy. Whether the scenes selected are historically accurate or not.

You can argue whether you think this is an accurate depiction of the REALITY of the modern-day conflict between America and enemies like ISIS (currently) or Iran (modern day Persia, let’s not leave that unmentioned), but it is nevertheless intriguing to consider it as an example of one of the NARRATIVES about what the reality is. Personally, I more or less agree in terms of the ideals which are in conflict, although I would not be so ignorantly judgmental as to say that all of the people in the nations at odds are represented accurately by the actions of their leaders. But then, neither was this true of the individuals alive in ancient Greece and Persia. It is instructive to note that whether our leaders represent us in the sense of accurately depicting what we privately feel, they nevertheless represent us in the sense that they speak for us and conduct business—and war—on our behalf. We have little power to choose what they do once they are in power, but we are still affected by the choices they make, and have to cope with it as a fact of life. This is one of the mysteries of history. 

On the subject of a lopsided morality narrative, consider that this same Xerxes who unsuccessfully tried to conquer Greece (the entirety of the civilized western world at that point, more or less), is the same king who weds the Jewess Esther in the Biblical book by the same name, and who, at her suggestion, issued a decree allowing the Jews in his kingdom to defend themselves against the scheduled genocide orchestrated by Haman. This became the basis for the feast of Purim. Purim, meaning lots, refers to that lots were cast (dice were rolled) to determine the date of the Jews’ fate. This callousness has been enshrined in the name of the celebration of the victory of the Jews over their enemies. One of many satanic schemes to destroy God’s people, thwarted. And yet, it was accomplished with Xerxes as one of the pawns in God’s elaborate play. With this in mind, I would end this section with the consideration that 300: Rise of an Empire, as a retelling of history, offers the suggestion that though “the nations rage, and the kings of the earth set themselves against God’s Anointed[Jesus],” - Psalm 2:1-2 - while we may marvel at the pieces in play and be anxious about the outcome, it is God who controls the board.

Poignant Relating to the Nature of Dystopian/Non-Christian Societies

47 Ronin (Keanu Reeves)

Japanese Emperors have a habit of punishing virtue with death, it seems.

There isn’t much I have to comment on as far as the movie’s plot is concerned. It’s your typical Feudal-Japan warrior movie, with some mythical elements to it, but thankfully not as much disregard for laws of physics as locally-directed movies tend to have. Imagine that, I’m singing the praises of Hollywood producers. As a movie, it wasn’t either super engaging or boring to tears, it was just a semi-accurate retelling of an actual story from Japanese history. But that’s where my interest lay. What I have to comment on, here, is the ending of the film. The 47 (surviving) Ronin (leaderless samurai) have avenged their master’s murder by killing the man who set him up, and who had ambitions of conquering his rival province. Sounds like a virtuous goal. In the Bible, there were provisions in the Mosaic Law that allowed a close relative (check) to avenge a murder (check) by killing the man guilty (check) so long as he didn’t flee to a ‘city of refuge’ (check). This was a sanctioned form of justice in an era when there were no national police forces. But in Japan, 3200 years later, the skewed honor system of that land required the death of the 47 Ronin, despite that they did the right thing, simply because they disobeyed the Emperor’s (unreasonable) forbiddance of seeking to exact this justice. He orders them to commit seppuku, a ritual disembowelment which for some reason was considered a more honorable death. 

The film ended shortly after, and I considered the ramifications of Feudal Japanese society’s disregard for the higher virtue of mercy and forgiveness. It was all honor and blood. No allowance for dismissing a person’s crimes. It is actually laughable to consider that the one man the Emperor ordered to step out of company, to survive the ordered mass self-execution, the murdered shogun(?)’s son, was spared “so that Japan would not be denied your bloodline.” So we want your zeal to be part of our country, but we will punish you mercilessly for the fact that you have it? What a mixed message. But what was the most poignant thing to me about this merciless, unreasonable sense of honor and justice that Japan apparently has or had, is the fact that, from what I have read before, I know that Japan had no Christians at this time. Their society was thoroughly pagan and therefore not influenced by Christian virtues such as mercy, forgiveness, grace, love, peace, patience, kindness and goodness. And why is that? Because Japan had systematically purged Christianity from the country.

For most of history, Japan remained uninfluenced by Christianity, as far as I've been able to tell through internet searches. What I was able to glean is that Jesuits (preaching a false faith, but nevertheless) first made inroads into Japan during the 'Warring States Period,' when external influence was more welcomed, in the hope of acquiring military technology, so missionaries moved fairly freely. However, over time the emperors began to look suspiciously at christians as an "Other," and, noting Spain's method of conquest involving first sending Roman Catholic missionaries (of which the Jesuits are a very evangelistic sect) to a nation that they intended to colonize, a series of persecutions began. This lasted for the duration of the Tokugawa dynasty, or some 250+ years. Now with a powerful central rulership, Japan decided to completely isolate itself from other countries, while internally pronouncing edicts that rewarded citizens for turning over christians to the state. More than any other place on earth where christianity had taken hold and was later persecuted, Japan so thoroughly exterminated believers that notwithstanding the Kakure Kirishitan, the faith's existence was entirely removed from the public sphere.

So when this story of the 47 Ronin takes place before the end of the Tokugawa dynasty which closed off Japan from outside influences expressly for the purpose of inoculating the country against Christianity.....yeah, I can't really sympathize. What you see on screen is the totally unnecessary yet inevitable result of rejecting God. Would you expect mercy from the merciless people who mercilessly murdered those who preach a message of mercy?

47 Ronin is a poignant reminder of what happens when a nation tries to construct laws without morality.

I should note that I found an apparent distinction between 'emperor' and 'shogun' as I was researching, and may not have understood well enough so as to have been totally accurate in my descriptions, but the larger point remains unaffected.

The Book Thief (Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush)

Resisting the Nazis from inside Germany, through the eyes of a child.
The movie is scripted as a heartwarmer, so it doesn’t have a plot-spanning problem to face, just various smaller ones in an overlapping fashion that shows the types of issues that some German families would have encountered during the final years of life in the Reich. I found it valuable as an apolitical insight into the side of WWII that isn’t typically shown in the war movies about the period. For that matter, The Monuments Men (forgot to mention that one in the list!) was valuable for the same reason. Life went on behind the lines, be it on the German side or the Allied side, and what these two films help do is show what it was like to experience the war away from the front lines, and how it was still dangerous.

The Book Thief in particular gave insights into the unspoken tension in the community surrounding things like allegiance to Hitler, nationalistic hatred of America [shown in the boy Rudi's idolization of Jesse Owens, which earns him rebuke] et al, and the mistrust and caution community members exercised with their words, trying not to stand out so as not to be reported. There is a scene with a book burning where everyone was told to sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles,’ and the cinematography captures the complex looks on people’s faces in the crowd. Are they doing their best to go along with it to avoid being outed as a dissenter? Or are they totally on board with the propaganda, blindly loyal to the cause they’re promoting with their lips? This sort of question seemed to me to be underlying the whole movie at a low level. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a “fever pitch.”

The movie doesn’t have one single overriding moral conundrum, it just has value in giving you something to ponder about, concerning how the society could get to that point, and what you would do if you were in the position of one of the characters, and how you could possibly prevent it from happening again. Because the movie is third person objective, it gives you frequent opportunities to reassess how you view the characters you see, after some event occurs and they ‘take a side.’ A safe movie to watch with children, not likely to scare them, nor is it graphic. It would serve as a good introduction to the idea of dystopian antiChristian societies.

Catching Fire (Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson)

A look at resistance against a centralized communist technocracy from the perspective of highly visible individuals.

I had seen the last half of the first film when a flatmate watched it on Netflix one day, and on a whim decided I would get the sequel for myself and watch it before bed one day. What surprised me was the almost total lack of emphasis on the gladiatorial combat that the plot revolved around. Instead, I found it to be a bit more political than what first meets the eye, in a vein similar to how Batman: The Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises explored political themes and the darker aspects of human nature. Far more than half of the movie is exposition, setting the scene for the Hunger Game climax. But the secret is that that is where the central story of the movie lay. There is a low rumbling, through nearly every scene, which suggests that beneath the façade of complacency and contentedness is a spirit of rebellion and defiance against the resource-redistributing, autocratic central government. You might not expect a mainstream Hollywood movie to be a political commentary against communism and wealth redistribution, but it lends itself oh so splendidly to that interpretation. A liberal Hollywoodite might think it’s better descriptive of a working-class rebellion against the opulent upper class that hoards wealth for itself, but know well that if you have a basic knowledge of the setting, you can offer a competing view to hopefully alter their perspective.

The Media plays a notable role in the film. The transparently fake game-show-host Cesar(??????) is a dystopian corollary to Entertainment Tonight (or ESPN, depending on whether you focus on the celebrity or the competition aspect), which serves the goal of attempting to distract the viewing audience from producing effective resistance by keeping them distracted with the manufactured news stories of the Tributes who are going to fight in the Arena. The backstory is that the Hunger Games were devised after a foiled rebellion 75 years ago, in an attempt to keep the people subjected and complacent: the district representative who survives ensures that their district remains well fed for the next year, while the rest live on in poverty and starvation. The whole media affair which follows the Tributes around as if they are celebrities is intended to play a role in keeping the people distracted, but the fatal flaw in the plan seems to be that the organizers didn’t consider that the defiance that would kick off the rebellion would begin on stage, televised to the whole country, and catalyze the long-awaited revolution.

It’s helpful to know that the first movie ended with the two surviving Tributes, two friends from the same District, choosing to commit suicide a la Romeo and Juliet fashion rather than kill each other as the rules required—before they went through with that, an announcer intervened and they were allowed to be the first exception to that rule. But they were marked, now, as enemies of the peace in the eyes of President Snow, because of their defiance, and so a way to make an example of them is worked out, and so they are eventually forced to participate in a second Hunger Game just the year after.

Because everyone, from the peasantry to the pageantry, senses what is going on, all eyes are on the central characters. The movie’s captivating theme is the exploration of how people might actually live in an oppressive police-state like Orwell’s Oceania in his novel 1984. Orwell’s insight was to show how a dystopian society’s government would make people complicit in their own captivity. Perhaps he was influenced by what he knew of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia (see my brief thoughts on The Book Thief, above). Either way, Catching Fire explores this same theme, but from a very public angle, to consider how celebrities might either succumb to acquiescence or cynicism, or keep alive a spirit of hatred against the injustice of how the system had abused them to keep alive a lie, that all was well in the nation. It gives you different reactions of crowds, of other Tributes, of genteel aristocrats, and of the central figures themselves, in more or less public contexts, to offer ideas to contemplate: would this be realistic? Could this happen in our society? Is this how people would respond? What does it take to dismantle a secret police state once it is already in place? How do you tell who is your friend and your enemy?

With that last question in mind, I think Woody Harrelson did a great job in showing the complexities of living a double life with his character. I didn’t see the whole first movie, as mentioned, but the context tells you that he was a previous surviving Tribute from the central characters’ district, and as such has the privilege/duty to be a mentor to the new Tributes. He gives you plenty to wonder about, whether he’s a son of the system, through and through, or whether he’s just learned to project formlessness, an unthreatening exterior so that he gains greater access without suspicion, the better to serve his role. You wonder until the final scene whether he—and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character—is consigned to his fate or if there is a spark of hope remaining in him.

The movie is an excellent dystopian fiction piece about what it might be like inside a technocratic police state (with unelected leaders and resource redistribution and a planned economy etc etc), and how the resistance might germinate and be fomented. It’s the opposite of a Christian ideal state, where divergent ideas are tolerated, federalized government allows people greater local autonomy, capitalism—private ownership of your own goods—is encouraged, and the society contains mingling of socioeconomic classes rather than ghetto-ization.

The question, as I prefer to pose is, ‘how could a society get to here?’ and, ‘how could this be prevented?’

Highly recommended, just bear in mind that it’s a mainstream Hollywood movie so it’ll contain some cursing, nudity and violence.

Good for Different Reasons

Lone Survivor (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch)

It doesn’t spout off religious propaganda and it doesn’t take a side on ‘just war’ or not. The way it’s filmed, you can watch this and go “MURICA!” and you can watch it and go “Our military murders children, I’m ashamed of my country.” You can look at it and say “this film rightly portrays the virtues of Islam”, or you can look at it and say “This shows the evils of a religion that holds tribal villages hostage and whose highest virtue is murder.” The movie itself doesn’t contain a meta-narrative. You can construct your own. Are the American soldiers unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does the militia’s hostility or the villagers’ hospitality represent Islam, or have anything to do with it? Does the discussion about what to do with the goat-herders demonstrate the humanity of American soldiers or does it reveal the bankruptcy of the USA’s rules of engagement? The movie won’t tell you, so this is something you can watch with a group of Redneck veterans and a group of college Democrat peaceniks, and have a lively discussion afterwards. Be advised, since the movie is intended to be an accurate depiction of warfare, it is both slow at times and then tediously gruesome for the duration of the flight down the mountain—it impressed me with both the ‘slow-paced-ness’ of the gunfight in the forest, and with the sheer amount of bodily harm the soldiers absorbed before they passed away. So watch it, whichever meta-narrative you’re prone to, if you want to gain an appreciation for the hard reality. As with most of the movies I’m discussing here, no boobies. Safe to watch with your 13-year-old if you think he’s able to handle the Saving Private Ryan beach scene and The Lost World. Language is coarse, however.

Thor: The Dark World (Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman)
Mainly a visual treat of the sci-fi sort, although there’s some unnecessary partial male nudity and needless comic relief by the “Two Broke Girls” star who’s Natalie Portman’s sidekick. Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t quite make sense without first having seen this and realizing that the two big forces the bad guys harness in each movie are related, being apparently two of five “infinity stones” in the Marvel universe. At the end of this movie, the ‘aether’ is deposited for safekeeping in the Collector’s vault, and when the heroes leave, we see him say “One down, four to go.” This plot continues in GotG where he has hired a mercenary to acquire a second infinity stone, although his plans are inadvertently foiled. The movie ends with Loki having fooled Thor that he is dead, and furthermore removed Odin from the throne and shape-shifted so as to make people think that he is Odin. Probably important to the next Avengers movie’s backstory.

Ender’s Game (Asa Butterfield)
I couldn’t tell you if the ending to this movie is intended by the directors or the author to fit into a narrative about how war is evil all the time, but what it does pose is a valid question about whether you would make the same decision (particularly in reference to causing someone else’s death) if your actions were no longer hypothetical but had real consequences. The lead character goes into upset convulsions after being told that his “war game” was not just a game but that he had fought an actual battle remotely, and been merciless to his opponents in order to win. Given the remote aspect, it offers an opportunity to discuss the use of military drones, if the people you watch this with are interested in discussion. It also posits the question of whether our idle wishes that whole groups of people would disappear (which I’ve heard from people who have meant it toward me, and from people who share my beliefs as well) would be reconsidered when we learn to see those whole groups as being composed of individuals who are by no means as monolithically hostile to us as we characterize the group as a whole to be. The movie also raises ethical questions concerning raising children to be warriors. The movie is a visual joyride with a decent amount of space warfare action, and no sexuality. What it does contain, though, is a few instances of brutal, though not gory, violence, which are tied into the character development of the lead.

The Last Days on Mars (Liev Schreiber)
I should have anticipated that it wouldn’t be a pure sci-fi movie. But despite its apparent straight-to-DVD release, it had good acting, good filming, good FX, and a plot that turned out to indulge suspense far more than a lofty scientific voyage of discovery. Face it, with what you could realistically find on Mars, an accurate scientific movie would be boring. Taking the discovery of an exotic bacterium and combining it with the fact of Mars being a desiccated wasteland, I’m impressed with the zombie creation story they manufactured. Most zed films (Dawn of the Dead 2004, Zombieland, REC, WWZ) don’t go into the backstory to show where the disease came from, or how it works, skipping instead straight to the freaky biting. But an infection that secretes chemicals that makes the host aggressive and desperate to consume moisture because the bacteria are drying them out, now that’s a plausible introduction into why the space scientists are taking a break from murdering their colleagues to suck up water from the lab floor. But what made the movie successful was its what-I-now-call “claustrophobic suspense.” The Spanish film REC was successful with this, too, making the main characters trapped inside an apartment complex with a dozen or so other people, with nowhere to go. The fact that no matter where you go on the entire planet, you have no refuge – and no guns on Mars – makes it an effective thriller despite a cast of less than 10 (I think it was 8, with 3 voice actors). You cringe because your mind is working overtime trying to figure out a way out, but there isn’t really a way out. It’s been a while since I watched a ‘good-old-fashioned horror movie,’ but this did the job. What I really appreciated was that with Liev Schreiber as the main character, cast as a physically fit and intelligent scientist (i.e. he doesn’t succumb to typical character-killing plot elements like weakness and dumb choices), the directors were able to plausibly cast him in unarmed combat with two other characters at different points, without making the action seem ridiculous, and actually raising the intensity of the film. And gratifyingly, he’s not made out to be a bumbling fool, but levelheaded. In contrast to the captain who in the first 30 minutes of the film, provoked me and my brother to mockery over his ludicrously poor management decisions. Mostly a safe film, though there may be some skin (can’t recall, but there’s no sex) and possibly coarse language (can’t remember that either); the main things to be concerned about are scary images and gore. If horror thrillers are your thing, this is your film.

Saving Mr. Banks (Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks)
I don’t usually watch dramas, but this was well made. The title references the fact that Mary Poppins’ author had used deeply personal life experiences from her childhood to inspire many scenes from the book (consequently, the movie), with notable emphasis placed on the song “Banks.” She loved her father, who was great with his kids but was a conflicted man seeing as he was an alcoholic, and his wife brought her sister to help when he fell ill, and this woman’s entrance became the inspiration for Poppins’ bag which was bigger on the inside than the outside. The climax (and plot in modern day) concerned her worry that Disney wouldn’t portray Mr. Banks right, because as Disney figured out, Mr. Banks as a literary figure represented the author (I can’t remember the name at the moment, and am offline writing this)’s conflicted feelings about her father. So “saving Mr. Banks?” Disney chose to rewrite the end of the film, inserting the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite,” and having the children go spend a day with their father. The movie, to me as a young child (I surely can’t have seen this in the last 15 years, I bet), was about fantastical adventures of the imagination, but I see now that it was really subtly about Mary Poppins coming in and restoring the children’s relationship with their dad. The movie effectively makes its case, and is a very safe film for the family to watch, and valuable furthermore for the depth it will give to your next viewing of Mary Poppins. Well recommended.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig)
Without giving too much away, it’s an adventure comedy in the vein of Forrest Gump, just that instead of spanning decades and important historical moments in the US, it covers a few weeks in a photo negatives developer’s quest to find the missing frame that his boss had told him to use for the last cover of LIFE magazine (a subsidiary of TIME, if I’m not mistaken). It’s intended as a cool and fun film, with no prominent vulgarities or sexualities, save one at the very end. For the hardcore fundamentalist, I should add that it portrays the lead character as interested in a divorced mother, and contains a drunkard who’s portrayed as fully capable of flying a helicopter. These are more subtle issues that are up the the individual to decide if their young children should see, but I would recommend using them as discussion points, seeing as it’s so rare to find a Hollywood movie that isn’t full of unnecessary sexual overtures and gratuitous vulgarity.

Robocop (Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman)

I couldn’t in fairness make this about some sort of fighting-against-indwelling-sin theme, with respect to Alex Murphy’s human mind freeing itself from the control of the machine’s programs. Even what looked to be the main theme, in the trailer, wasn’t developed very much in the movie. They could have focused more on Murphy’s struggle to be more human than machine, but whereas they laid the exposition, by the midpoint of the movie, any progress in this regard in the character was relegated to be merely implied, if you had the imagination for it. It certainly wasn’t terrible. The movie was great as an action flick and fast-paced detective drama, it just didn’t seem to go beyond its plot and project big themes in the same way that the Batman reboots have. Violence is to be expected in the movie, but there’s an unnecessary bedroom scene (low key by Hollywood standards) before Murphy’s assassination. Recommended for anyone who likes movies with guns, robots, aliens and explosions. Oh, there may be a detectable opinion on the side of the directors/producers that corporations can’t be trusted but the government can. On the other hand, the corruption in the police department might offer a counter-narrative to that one. Which is the more sincere? Is there anything to this observation? Up to you to decide.


Just recently saw a movie with Dolph Lundgen, although he was cast as a somewhat jerkish antihero. The main character and he were offering competing solutions to a Chinese exotic animal that was wreaking havoc in a rural area, killing construction workers near a lake. The CGI wasn’t the show-stealer, but it was good enough to not distract from the film. What the plot concerned was a cryptozoological endeavor to capture the creature, and consequently the script highlighted some evolutionary presuppositions. “A prehistoric bear.” “Darwin has found you wanting [referring to natural selection, when Lundgren intends to kill his rivals].” “Lying is an evolved survival mechanism.” Minor stuff that didn’t really rise to the level of being preachy, but took evolutionary presumptions for granted. It’s just another minor example to me that shows how widely the war against God rages. What I found somewhat exciting was the acknowledgment of the cryptid known as the Ropen, on satellite islands of New Guinea. Genesis Flood co-author John Whitcomb has personally traveled there and even written a book, Searching for Ropens, motivated by the tantalizing find, which would possibly demonstrate the present existence of large pterosaurs, concurrent with humans. Along with other “living dinosaur” claims, this one would be a remarkable visual proof directly contradicting the claims of evolution. Wouldn’t it be exciting if a living specimen could be recovered, or at least filmed in broad daylight at close distance? (the only video of it is at night, and current theory is that it is bioluminescent)

The Numbers Station (John Cusack)
Erased (Aaron Eckhart)
Three Days to Kill (Kevin Costner)
Runner, Runner (Justin Timberlake, Brian Affleck)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (the guy from Star Trek, Keira Knightley)
Jack Reacher: One Shot

Saw all of these, but can’t drudge up enough details to give a compelling synopsis. The best I can say for them is that they’re a little different from your typical spy movies, with more or less focus on an underdog main character with some form of debilitating weakness that makes him more human and sympathetic. Can’t recommend them for the content, necessarily, but as far as keeping the interest with well-put-together plots…at least they have that. Those Hollywood millions have to count for something.

Guardians of the Galaxy

It was a review in TIME by Richard Corliss that seemed unduly critical (far more so in the condensed print version) of this movie that gave me the impulse to write a review of it, which then morphed into a mega-post about every movie I can remember seeing since December. (Except the lame ones..I can be merciful). Basically, the criticism was that GotG was a product of MARVEL studios trying to squeeze whatever drop of money they could out of their most obscure heroes, and that the casting was ridiculous. 

Having just seen the movie, on account of my brother being unable to persuade otherwise after seeing the trailer, I disagree. I appreciated several things about the movie, which I think make it better than most. Notwithstanding the special effects and cinematography which were excellent, the humor wasn’t forced, in my opinion. The funny parts naturally grew out of plausible backstories of the characters involved, in particular ‘Skylord’ and Drax. The soundtrack was explained by a walkman the main character’s mom had given him when he was young, in the 70s. It was the one thing connecting him to earth, so he was very attached to it. The opening scene with Skylord dancing with headphones in while tomb raiding and smacking away small lizards was humorous but also inspiringly realistic. 

A ‘bad-ass’ character needs to portray one aspect of personality only, but real people aren’t like James Bond-suave all the time; they’re awkward and social and have a need for creature comforts and something to make them laugh. I think Guardians succeeds at showing the characters as realistically human-like. Imagine that, that it would take an alien-warfare movie to show a human human character. I personally found the character Drax a breath of fresh air. Stereotype-busting, he’s a beefcake thuggish character who turns out to be extremely intelligent, to a fault, such that he fails to understand nonverbal cues, metaphors, and idioms. The best line of the movie was where Skylord said ‘never mind, it went over your head,’ and Drax responds, with a smug, sly squinty-eyed sideways look as he spoke, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I’d catch it.” Who says that can’t be true? That big guys can be really smart and socially oblivious to slang? Why indulge the stereotype of big guys being stupid. It’s just as unreasonable as casting big-breasted women as unintelligent. Why should bigger be dumber? I like that this movie challenged that very directly. And all while seeming very plausible, since an alien like Drax wouldn’t have any experience with Earth-originated figures of speech. In fact, it would be very suspicious if he did understand. 

If you’re like me and appreciate attempts at realism in sci-fi movies, you might be pleasantly surprised to find it in the characters’ behavior, if not in the overarching physics involved in immortals controlling pulsating energy with the power to destroy the cosmos. The other thing that was really well appreciated in this movie was the total lack of ‘gratuitous boobies.’ The most overt sexual reference in the film, which is easy to ignore, is when a girl pops up out of a room in Skylord’s ship in the early part of the film, and he says that he’d forgotten she was there. It doesn’t get much more suggestive than that, although there’s an unconsummated kiss-scene before the epi-climax near the middle. So the movie distinguishes itself by being safe for pubescents, visually appealing, complex without being confusing, and realistically character-driven. Oh, and by actually providing further backstory to the MARVEL Avengers universe, by drawing on the teasers you saw at the end of The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World to expand the narrative and introduce Thanos as an impending enemy in the franchise. Just don’t bother waiting til the end of the credits of this movie if you’re looking for sneak peeks. Trust me. 

~ Rak Chazak

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