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I don’t claim to be a Star Wars super-fan (I googled a bunch of names in the movie to write this post). I liked movies 4-6. They are good stories that introduce us to a creative universe and throw in some humor.

The Force Awakens was a home run, but I was disappointed by the The Last Jedi. It had its bright moments, and it wasn’t the worst Star Wars that has been made, but it is closer to the bottom of the pile than the top. I would give it a three out of five stars. What has surprised me is the varying opinions of this movie. Some loved it, others hated it. I can’t quite place my finger on why this is, so here is my explanation of my general disappointment.

It basically comes down to bad storytelling. Tell a good story and I can get past some of the bad scenes. Tell a bad story and the bad scenes become painful to watch.

It is not just super-fans who are let down, but regular movie-goers who are merely looking for some continuity within a series.

The Relationship to The Force Awakens

One huge problem was immediately apparent. Johnson didn’t care what happened in TFA. Usually the scroll screen at the beginning tells you what has happened when you were not watching Star Wars. But there is no time between TFA and TLJ. TLJ picks up where TFA left off. And if you remember, in TFA the resistance destroyed the First Orders’ biggest weapon. They should be scrambling at this point. But now the First Order is back in power again. What? It is almost as if Johnson forgot how TFA ended.

And this brings up a larger point. TLJ at almost every point took what was set up by the TFA and did something different. Now that is their prerogative, but this is a series and it teaches viewers to not care about the development in TFA. To me it says, don’t pay attention to our plot or character development, because we might scrap it in a flip of a switch.

The TFA made us think that Rey came from some important family and TLJ just quickly said, “Nope.” Again, it is not wrong to do this, but why the set up in TFA?

Add to this that they never explained who Snoke was, where he came from, and then they just killed him off. Again, TFA made me intrigued about who this figure was. TLJ said, “Let’s just cut him in two and move on.”

Plot Holes and Pointless Scenes

At the end of the day, movie had too many plot holes and pointless scenes. Here are a few of them.

– Fin just wakes up from his coma. So does Leia. So will Rose I assume. So space comas don’t matter at all is what they are telling me. Kill someone off for goodness sake. These near death experiences are killing me.

– They dropped bombs in space (enough said).

– The whole Canto Bight scene was worthless in terms of plot development. It felt off from the beginning. They had a few hours to get to a planet, find a person they didn’t know, and then break into the First Order. Fin was not developed at all in these scenes and the plot line fizzled into nothing.

– They find the robber for one second and then find another in jail? What? Why is the best hacker in jail? Why did Maz tell them there is only ONE PERSON who can do this and then they find another? And if this robber/cloaker is so good, why not employ them?

– They tried to throw in this Rose/Fin love angle right at the end. So now we have a love square going on? Rey, Ren, Fin, Rose. I am more confused than excited to see what happens next.

– Speaking of plot development, there were essentially two plot lines. One with the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren (good) and the second with the Resistance fleet fleeing the First Order (bad). I heard the Resistance storyline compared to the OJ White Bronco chase scene. Nothing happens…for hours. It is like a space chase in slow motion.

– Oh and side note: why didn’t they just put a robot on the ship and crash it into the First Order rather than one of their top commanders?

– Rey dropping down into the dark hole in Ireland was pointless. She went down there and saw herself and snapped a few times. Maybe the point was to show that she didn’t have a famous family past but it seemed an odd way to show it. That scene should have been huge as she struggled with the dark side, but it was just weird.

– The Porgs. The Ewoks worked before because we came to love them and they ended up being a big part of the final battle. The porgs felt thrown in just to have a silly creature in there. That is not the way to make a movie. Make every scene count.

– Why did Luke pole vault?

Trying Too Hard

The movie also tried too hard. It had one really good ending scene, but then added about five more to try to wrap too many plot lines together. But this isn’t the last movie!

I would have rather had them leave a few strings hanging like TFA did at the end with Luke, Rey, Fin, and even Kylo Ren. That was a good ending that made me really want come back for TLJ. TFA realized they could keep people on the edge of their seats. I walked out of TLJ not so interested in what was going to happen next. I just kept thinking they had about 10 chance to kill Leia and didn’t do it.

The good final scene that I am speaking about in TLJ was with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. That felt like the best of Star Wars to me and clearly a throw back to the Luke, Vader, and Emperor scene. I was at the edge of my seat during this scene because the most interesting plot line of the whole movie was coming to a climax.

But they also messed up this scene with Ren then flipping again immediately after he killed Snoke. At one minute Rey and Kylo Ren are fighting side by side and then the next they are battling for the light saber. What was that? Talk about a roller coaster. I understand they were trying to get across the divided nature of Ren, but the power of the Vader flip was that no one saw it coming. Now I don’t think they have to do exactly the same thing with Ren as Vader, but the flip in two minutes didn’t work.

They tried to have four epic endings, but they focused on the epic rather than the ending. Rey and Ren face off, Luke and Ren face off, the Empire and the Resistance face off, and Fin and Chromehead face off. Talk about overkill. I realize they needed to bring some of these to a conclusion but IT WAS NOT THE LAST MOVIE. Leave something to be desired.

Conclusion

It might sound like I thought The Last Jedi was all bad. It wasn’t. Here are a few of the things I liked.

– The storyline between Rey and Ren was well done. I liked the slowness of the relationship between Rey and Luke as well. That whole plot line was good.

– Even though I didn’t like White Bronco space chase plotline, I liked Poe a lot (Oscar Isaac). He is always a good actor. The best of the bunch in my opinion.

– Though I thought Ren flipped and flopped too much, I actually think he plays his part well.

 

If you enjoyed the move I don’t have anything against that. The point here is that it is not just Star Wars super-fans who had issues; the plot had issues. I was just hoping to see a good storyline continue. Unfortunately, I was let down and am not as interested in the next movie. Sure, I will still see it, but it this even fixable now?

Either Abrams goes back to TFA in Episode IX and this movie sticks out like a sore thumb, or they keep up with TLJ and TFA looks out of place. I think they put themselves in a hard place.

Maybe someone will tell me why all the scenes I described so negatively actually worked and continued the storytelling of the Star Wars saga.

 

 

One of the ways to analyze culture is to look at film. This year’s Oscar nominations for best picture are quite impressive. Unlike previous collections, this batch of movies are thoughtful and possess unique cohesive themes. While summer blockbusters are usually an inch deep and a trillion dollars wide, this year’s Oscars are an impressive canon—instructing, initiating, and instilling a larger cultural conversation.

While it would be silly to argue they each have the same message, viewing them canonically unearths some interesting insights. Each of the Oscar nominations for best picture have some reflection on time. Some reach back in time, others skip through time, and a few are centered on the relationship of the past to the present.

Moonlight quickly moves through stages of Chiron’s life. Lion likewise jumps ahead in Saroo’s life from a young child to a college student. Saroo can’t move forward without first going back in time. La La Land is a throwback to old musicals and has a key scene at the end where Emma Stone reflects on how a different choice could have altered her life. Arrival is about the gift of language to humans which allows them to transcend time. Fences reaches back in time and centers of Troy Maxson and his wrestling with the past and present. Hidden Figures retells a familiar story and discloses strands of this story that were neglected. Manchester By the Sea brings the past into the present in the tragedy of a young family. Hacksaw Ridge tells an unlikely heroic narrative of the past and Hell or High Water is framed around the ethics of the past bank crisis.

Whether it be the intersection of the past and the present or the possibility of the future, each movie educates about life in the present and gives us quite a bit to digest in our current cultural moment. Four lessons come to the surface: (1) the past always extends into the present, (2) beware of nostalgia (3) don’t let the past derail the present, and (4) the future can be hopeful.

The Past Always Extends Into the Present

Although we tend to think of the past as locked away, its fingers find their way into the present almost like sugar ants inevitably find their way into a house. One of the most powerful portrayals of this comes in Manchester by the Sea. Lee Chandler is a sullen man who is asked to take care of his nephew when Lee’s older brother dies. What viewers find out part way through the movie is that Lee had a previous life. In this life he was happily married with three kids but a tragic mistake takes the life of his three children. Lee’s marriage unravels, and he now has to face his past in the city where his life was torn to shreds. In one telling scene he bumps into his remarried ex-wife and her newborn baby. She expresses remorse about how she treated him and asks to reconnect but Lee says, “There’s nothing there.”

Although the entirety of La La Land does not reflect on the intersection of the past and the present, the last scene reveals that if Mia and Sebastian had made a different choice their present would look different. The past decision of Mia going to Paris radically altered her life. Moonlight gives time montages of Chiron building the background of the story of a young black man and his struggles with identity and sexuality. The director Jenkins jumps through time to show the struggles Chiron has a kid are never really resolved although he matures.

The point is that in each of these films the past plays a major role in the development of the story, if not the most critical one. The movies teach us that we can’t siphon off the past as if it never happened and simply “move on” with our lives. Rather, the past always haunts us and causes us to reflect and ask different questions for the present and the future.

I believe this directly speaks into the racial discussion our country is having. I see pictures of white men holding up signs about how they never enslaved anyone, and hear those claiming the past is not their fault. But maybe Oscars help us see that this is stunted view of reality. We can’t siphon off the past and think that because it was in the past it does not have some effect in the present and the future. The past molds and shapes the present in ways that we can’t see unless a director fast-forwards through time. The past bumps into the present and reaches into the future. Acting like the past doesn’t play into the present and future is a very godless and deistic way to think of time. Time is a progression, but it is also unified.

Beware of Nostalgia 

A few of this year’s Oscar’s warn also of nostalgia of the past. La La Land is the most explicit with this theme. La La Land leads viewers through the motions of an old musical only to break their hearts at the end. The director Chazelle purposively lulled his viewers into sleep only to upset their expectations in the last few scenes. Chazelle warns his viewers to not escape into nostalgia. Not everything in the past is as it seems, so don’t get lost in the past.

Yuval Levin argues similarly in his book The Fractured Republic. Both liberal and conservative American’s nostalgia for the past has led to today’s polarized national life. Liberals to miss the economic arrangements of social liberalization in the 1960s while conservatives miss the 1980s. But today our society is more fragmented and fractured than either of those eras so we need different solutions to some of the same problems.

The films also in a similar way urge us to widen our perspective of the past. It is not just that the past reaches into the present, but that we have a rather limited view on what happened in the past. History is complex—thousands of threads combine to tell a story and not all those stories have the same point. Hidden Figures recounts a well-known space race story from the 1960’s but urges us to look deeper at some of the players that did not receive the credit they deserved. While we might think we know our history or the history of the nation, our perspective on the past is always at best incomplete. Our view of the golden age may have not been golden for others.

Hacksaw Ridge in a similar way told a WWII story but from the perspective of hero we may have never heard of and may not agree with ideologically. Hacksaw displays that those not like us, those who we might fiercely disagree with, are not necessarily bad people just because they have different perspectives. They are not cowards for not fitting into the current ideology. It takes more strength to take a step to a different tune. Sometimes those who are most unlike their generation are the trailblazers for the next generation.

Don’t Let the Past Derail the Opportunity of the Present

While the movies portray the importance of the past for understanding the present, they also warn that the past can derail the present. In Fences Tory Maxson is so wrapped up in the glory and tragedy of his past that he can’t seem to move his family into the good of the present. This is most evident with his interactions with their son Cory. Cory is a promising young football player but Troy refuses to let him pursue this dream because he thinks the white man will never let him succeed. Ultimately, Troy looks for happiness outside of his family which destroys the family. Toward the end of the movie Cory is tempted to also let bitterness define his identity by not going to his father’s funeral. But Rose (his mother) is a voice of reason. She tells him that she loved Troy, despite his weaknesses and that part of Troy still lives in him and he needs to conquer where Troy failed.

Hidden Figures in the same way tells of the story of four black women at NASA in 1961 who were instrumental in the space race with Russia. Rather than letting the past define these women’s roles they all push forward to become more than what the current culture would normally allow. They do this by being excellent at their trade and having a never-give-up attitude.

In one way, this point challenges those who would give a hearty “amen” to my first point. While a few of the movies show that the past can never fully be discounted, a few others caution against letting the past define the present. Don’t just blame the past and get stuck in protest and forget to see the opportunities right in front of you. If the first point challenged those acting like they are innocent in the racial tension, this point dares to address those so preoccupied with the past that the discourse has been poisoned before it started. It warns through the image of Troy and emboldens through the images of the three black women working at NASA.

The Future Can Be Hopeful

Finally, this year’s Oscars direct our eyes to a hopeful future. This comes in spite of a checkered past, and the danger of the past derailing the present. Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks who is asked to decipher the language of aliens who have landed on earth in twelve spacecraft’s. When Louise learns they want to offer a weapon, fear takes over the globe. But Louise argues the symbol can be interpreted as a “tool” or “technology.” Louise then learns that this weapon is language that changes their perception of time. Viewers realize that Louise’s flashbacks are really flash-forwards. Louise foresees that Ian will father her daughter Hannah, but will leave discovering that their daughter will die of a rare disease. Nevertheless, Louise agrees that she wants to have a baby.

Arrival argues the solution to fear is a shared language. A hopeful future arrives by transcending the current nature of our discourse. We need a reversal of Babel where fear is not the controlling factor—rather hope is. Love hopes the best. The present danger is that we won’t learn from our past, we will neglect the reality our past, or we will let the past derail the present, but hope is found in communication, honesty, and transparency.

 

 

 

 

Unbroken

December 27, 2014 — 28 Comments

Unbroken-2014

I remember lying on the sand sprinkled couch with a book held above my face, turning page after page. The pearly sands of the North Carolina beach were calling me, but the white pages seemed more important at the time. Someone had brought the book on vacation, and I grabbed it, possibly out of lack of preparation on my part for an effective time consumer.

Although our small beach house was full with people, the noise didn’t seem to bother me, a trait I must have picked up from my father. I was in my last year of high-school and this could be our final family vacation all-together (as my father continually promised and is still promising). But I could not pull myself away from the book, and every chance I got, I would jump onto the couch and continue the story of this incredible horse.

image.axdThe book I could not put down was Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand.

Neither horses or her name were familiar to me. Although I was currently living in Kentucky, we had transplanted there, so the “horse thing” was not really a part of our family as much as the “book thing.” Laura Hillenbrand was not yet a household name either, although her book had been out a little over a year. The book must have been recommended by someone else to end up in our family’s possession.

Although my memory is notoriously poor, I do remember the book being unique because of the writing of Hillenbrand.

Her story was her story, and she dissolved into the background. The writing was as smooth as a stream of butter, with no rocks or jolts that made me spring out of the narrative. The book’s reputation was unfortunately tainted by the 2003 movie starring Tobey Maguire which did not receive high ratings.

Another American Legend

Unbroken is the second book of Hillenbrand, published in 2010. After the incredible journey Hillenbrand took me on with Seabiscuit, I immediately picked up Unbroken when it was published.

Although this time I was not on the beach of North Carolina, it had the same effect on me, but this was even a greater story.

Last night, I went to see the movie, based on the book made by Angelina Jolie. I followed a lot of the rumors and news about the movie, so when I walked in I knew what I was getting myself into. I also knew that it was going to be impossible for this movie to live up to the book. My expectations were tempered, but I still wanted to see the film.

And what Jolie made was not all bad, although it was not all that good either. That is what will be the problem for those who read the book, they really want this movie to be exceptional, and it is not.

The Flaws

So what is wrong with the movie? Is there something wrong with the movie? Would the movie have been fixed if she included Zamperini’s conversion at the end? Would it have been that much of a better movie? Would it have made it an excellent film?

These are all distinct questions, but I would like to try to answer them.

Two major flaws stick out to me, one more prominent than the other.

First, “The Bird,” as one NPR analyst said, just doesn’t work. And Jolie really needs “the bird” to work in a full sense to capture the heart of this book. Jolie appropriated the eccentric nature of this man, but the strange (for lack of a better term) metro-sexual aura seemed out of place. Do I know what “The Bird” was like? No, not exactly, but when I read the book there was this conglomeration of feelings toward this man: hate, confusion, fear, rage, disorientation, and fury. Jolie’s character only communicated disorientation and stunted an essential part of the book.

Second, and probably more confusing for most of the readers of this blog, my main complaint with the movie was that it was too preachy. That is probably the last thing Jolie expected from an evangelical Christian.

Seabiscuit and Unbroken were both great stories. But as I mentioned above, Hillenbrand’s greatest strength is that she dwindles in the background. And if one hears this as me saying she is not a great writer, I am affirming the opposite. The hardest thing to do as a writer is to disappear, and let the story work its way into the marrow of the reader. She works really hard to get out of the way, and she does.

Zamperini’s story was so incredible, it did not need a “message” supporting it.

The movie doesn’t let the narrative tell the story, or at least not enough. Very early on in the movie the viewer keeps getting hit (literally) in the face with the theme of endurance and stamina. It is as if Jolie thinks her viewers won’t get it unless we see it a million times.

Zamperini gets in a fight as a kid and stands up against four. He has a few heart to hearts with his brother where his brother says “If you can take it, you can make it,” which is repeated throughout the film. Then one sees him endure in multiple races and everyone knows what is coming.

08well_book-articleInlineI don’t recall Hillenbrand doing something like this, at least as explicitly. Certainly, there was a streak in Zamperini, even early in his life, that he had endurance and grit. But the great thing about Hillenbrand is that she let you figure that out through the narrative without shouting it in your ear over and over again. The story did all the hard work.

Many times the most effective messages are the understated ones, and this one becomes too preachy. Countless messages were contained within the book, and each reader was hit with different aspects of it. It was a one-note film, but a multifaceted book.

With these flaws, I am not sure the story would have been “fixed” with the ending that was in the book. For this would have come off as too preachy too. Having said that, the movie would have included more variety and really fit the narrative arc of the book if it portrayed the way forgiveness found Louie. The movie comes across as one big torture scene and some viewers might walk out feeling “If I can take it, I can make it to the end.”

Of course, Hillenbrand’s book is excruciating to read in many places, and a large portion of it concerns Zamperini’s POW experience. Yet the bookends to the narrative do something special which I can’t quite put my finger on.

If I had to guess, it lets us know more of the man than simply his “unbrokenness.” It lets us see his flaws, his humanity, and in this way we begin to relate to him. He does not just have a jar full of will-power, but he has flaws and scars that show up even after he is gone from the hell of war.

Average Movie, Unforgettable Book

Like I said, the movie is not terrible, but it is forgettable.

The book is unforgettable.

So for those who read it, they will come out disappointed. Others will think it was okay, but the readers of the book will not be satisfied with an “it was okay.”

Possibly it will make a few more people want to read the book and start some conversations about the differences between Hillenbrand’s and Jolie’s portrayal of Louie Zamperini.

 

full_unbroken-uncut

 

 

 

Interstellar and Love

November 28, 2014 — 1 Comment

 

The-Answer

Over at Western Seminary’s blog (Trans.formed), I did a short piece on the movie Interstellar. I note the search for transendence, but also point out the theme of love.

What I don’t mention in the review is that Interstellar does touch upon sacrificial love. McConaughey goes into space to save his children, to save the world. Nolan portrays this nearly perfectly in two scenes. The first is when McConaughey is driving away from the farm and tears fill his eyes knowing he may never see his children again. The second comes when McConaughey is in space and viewing the messages from his children. These scenes are emotionally charged because people know Nolan is reaching the deepest part of the human soul.

See the rest of my review here.

 

MV5BMjAzMzg0MDA3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTMzOTYwMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_David Instone-Brewer reviews ‘Noah’ below.

 

For once it is no hype to say this film has a canvas of Biblical proportions.

Though in today’s language you might compare it more accurately with Lord of the Rings. Look out for images akin to Isengard, fighting as impressive as Aragorn’s and creatures suspiciously similar to the Ents.

If you are wondering where all this fits into Genesis, be prepared to let your imagination soar. Storylines from the Book of Enoch, other Jewish myths and the director’s imagination supplement the Bible text. Together they create a compelling story and a surprise ending.

Charlton Heston famously defined an epic as a film that he starred in. He was wonderful at portraying strength with a smouldering anger. Russell Crowe is starting to fill his shoes, and is very suitable as Noah, because he can show the same strength though with an underlying sadness. In this film he also adds a convincing hint of madness, but I mustn’t give too much away.

It is unfair to ask “Is it accurate?” If it were, there would be only ten minutes of story plus lots more special effects. Actually, “special effects” is an understatement. Throughout the film everything is so real that I was glad it wasn’t in 3D.

The really 3D aspect of this film is in the characterisation. Noah and his sons are totally believable and the tensions with Ham flesh out the Biblical narrative convincingly. But the female roles carry the dramatic turning points, conveyed with Oscar-quality acting. They also get the best lines and appear to speak the director’s message.

Although the film takes liberties with the story of Noah, the essential message of Genesis is conveyed clearly and accurately. The story of Eden, the snake, temptation, the murder of Abel and subsequent decline of humanity is referred to frequently. The bigger picture of God’s plan to undo this damage is hinted at, but it would not be true to Genesis to state this clearly.

“How do we know God’s will?” is the unspoken question addressed by various characters throughout the film. How can Noah know what to do, and does he really understand God’s plan accurately? His dream informs him but also misleads him. His wife (who, as in the Bible, is nameless), says the goodness in our character comes from God so we should listen to it. Tubal-Cain, the violent self-appointed king, says God has left us to do whatever we want.

This film shouldn’t be seen as an accurate portrayal of the Bible, but can be treated as a thought-provoking way to explore the message of Genesis.

I grew up reading this book. Who knows if Hollywood will mess it up and do it justice.