Somewhere back in the early part of the 20th century, three Jewish brothers from Rhode Island put their heads together and opened a textile company. The Hassenfeld brothers had no idea what their entrepreneurial endeavors would produce, nor would they live to see the global, multi-billion dollar behemoth that their baby company would grow up to become nearly 100 years later. Unbeknownst to them, they had set in motion a chain of events that would re-shape the childhoods of millions of kids in the distant future of 1984. For it was in that year, that the Hassenfeld Brothers’ company, now known by its more popular moniker – Hasbro – would cut a deal with a Japanese toy company known as Takara, and a comic book company in the U.S. known as Marvel, to produce exactly three things aimed directly at the still developing hearts and minds of boys like little Adam Coffman. These three things were a comic book, a cartoon, and a toy line. The purpose of the comic book was to create a mythology, and the purpose of the cartoon was to spin that mythology into 30-minute advertising spots that could be used to market the toy line – a toy line that was comprised of the main characters in the mythology. The result of this inspirational stroke of genius (or diabolical scheme depending on your perspective) was something that the entire globe now knows simply as The Transformers.
What Hasbro hadn’t counted on, was how deeply the mythology of the transforming robots from outer space would burrow into the hearts of its intended target audience. The toys themselves were quite expensive by early 80s standards, and there were many families (like mine) that just couldn’t afford them. But the cartoon, on the other hand, was accessible to everyone, and the stories and characters it introduced into our young lives were so captivating that it ensured a seemingly perpetual longevity to The Transformers mythos, a limitless recycling of products based on them, and a legacy that has now spilled over into the lives of every generation of kids since then.
In the late summer of 1986, just two years after the launch of the brand, The Transformers made their feature film debut in theaters all across America. And within weeks of the film’s premiere, the cries and lamentations of young boys could be heard from sea to shining sea. Hasbro, in an attempt to refresh its line of toy products had introduced plenty of new characters in the $6 million dollar animated film – and it doubled down on its commitment to these new characters by subjecting us all to the on-screen violent murders of the most beloved characters in the franchise, including our hero Optimus Prime. This was the right move from a marketing perspective, I suppose… but for all the 9 and 10 year olds clamoring out of bed extra early on school mornings, and sacrificing our personal hygiene in order to catch a few more glimpses of the Autobots going toe to toe with the Decepticons before the school bus arrived – it was devastating. And we’ve never fully recovered. It left us all with a hollow feeling in the pit of our souls that we’re still trying to fill to this very day.
In 2007, for a brief moment, we gasped a collective sigh of relief as the first live action Transformers movie hit theaters. Nearing our 30s at the time, and sufficiently ready to curate the two decades worth of Transformers material that had sprouted a dense forest of sequels, reboots, and restructured characters – we entered movie theaters with all our hopes and dreams in tow alongside us. And when Peter Cullen, the original voice of our beloved Optimus Prime spoke again after decades of silence… we shed tears. I did anyway. Hearing Prime speak again, after thinking him dead for so long, after hearing only rumors that he had survived the assault on our childhoods, and after having grown into adults with our own battles to fight—it was all too much emotional overload to contain. As Jesus had wept at the tomb of Lazarus before calling him forth into resurrection, so we had wept at the tomb of Optimus Prime before seeing him called back to life by Michael Bay.
Sorry for the crude analogy. I know it’s not as dramatic as all that. And I’m not comparing Michael Bay to Jesus mind you… I’m only calling attention to the sentiment of death and resurrection portrayed for us, even in fictional stories. For our western society which is built on Judeo-Christian ethics and archetypes, this story-telling device is a good way to find traction with our heart-strings.
If we want to get literal, then Michael Bay would be more like the antichrist. Because he brought Prime back, along with the other original generation of Transformers, only to twist them into monstrous parodies of themselves in a series of four sequels that stripped them of any dignity they once held and shackled them within the chains of box office viability for the masses of teenagers today who have no idea what The Transformers are supposed to be.
While the first of Bay’s movies wasn’t too bad (because Steven Spielberg had his hands on the reigns as Executive Producer), and hit pretty close to the mark in terms of conjuring the original mythology, the sequels he made became progressively worse as he was let off the leash by Spielberg and quadrupled down on multi-million dollar special effects, slow motion explosions that last for hours, poop jokes, sex jokes, and close-up shots of boobs, butts, and guns – all at the expense of the only thing that truly matters; the only thing that ever mattered to those of us caught up in this spectacle to begin with: STORY.
Thankfully, and quite unexpectedly, the powers that be – Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks, and Hasbro – came to their collective senses last year, actually listened to all the 40 year olds still looking for our old friends to be given their proper due on the big screen, and pulled Bay out of the Director’s chair – effectively ending his ability to continue dropping steaming piles of manure on the remnants of our childhood imaginations.
In his place, Travis Knight and Christina Hodson have written and directed a sixth Transformers film called Bumblebee, completely rebooting the entire series. And they’ve done a masterful job of it.
This new film is a much smaller, much more humble endeavor. It takes us back to the roots. It’s set in the 1980s, as it should be, and it tells the story of one character – B 127 – the small, loveable, loyal sidekick of Optimus Prime as he crashes on Earth. Pursued by two evil Decepticon lieutenants, alone on an alien world, injured from battle, unable to speak, and without any memory of who he is and where he’s come from, he is forced to go into hiding by taking on the appearance of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Eventually, B-127 is found by a teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who befriends the beleaguered outcast, renames him Bumblebee, teaches him about human culture, and helps him to recover his memories as their adventures unfold in a way that is unique to the Transformers mythology, and yet also pleasantly reminiscent of something like E.T. the Extraterrestrial.
The story of Bumblebee manages to capture the elements of the original stories that struck so deeply into our hearts as kids in a way that the previous films never have. To us, these stories were never about fast cars, supersonic jets, and sexy paint jobs… they were about heroes; heroes who were the underdogs, driven into exile by unjust oppressors, forced to adapt to a new way of life in a foreign land, befriended by those who saw the good in them, and consumed with a desire to protect, encourage, and inspire their friends.
For a generation of young kids growing up in the 1980s, at the dawn of the digital age, we were the first generation to have a personal relationship with the microchips that were consuming the world around us. Our imaginations were shaped by this, and our minds were mesmerized by it. And they still are. This is the root of our fascination with The Transformers. It’s why they’ve been able to continue appealing to kids (and adults) today. We place so much of our lives into the hands of our technology – we rely on it, and we care for our phones, computers, gaming systems, and cars like they are our friends. At the same time, we’re not naïve about the dangers of technology as well; we know how the things we use for good can also be used to bring about great evil. We’ve walked in both worlds, and The Transformers reflect this same duality.
Fictional stories about technology that can reciprocate our desire for connection and friendship have always made sense to us. Bumblebee succeeds as a film because relationship between human and machine is at the heart of its story – as is the choice between whether we use our connection with technology for good, or for evil.
One of the good things about getting older is being able to look back and see things from the past with a little more clarity than I did the first time around. I think this is often how we learn things in life. I suppose it’s similar to the difference between walking around in the middle of a city, and then driving away from it and being able to see the whole place from a distance, even as it fades into the rearview. That’s one of the reasons I like to re-watch movies I’ve seen several times before—especially those that I first saw a long time ago. The passage of time seems to create enough distance for me to see the same films with a completely different perspective.
In regards to the movies that I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, this change in my perspective is most notable in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction. It won an Oscar for best screenplay the following year, launched Tarantino out of relative obscurity, and made him one of the best-known directors in Hollywood. I didn’t know any of this at the time, nor did I care in the least bit. I’ve made mention before of all the great movies that came out of 1994—The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Speed, Reality Bites, Dumb and Dumber, and many others—but Pulp Fiction didn’t ping my radar that year. I saw it for the first time a few years later, just around the time I graduated from high school, and even then, I can’t say that I was particularly blown away by it.
That’s not to say it wasn’t mesmerizing in a strange sort of way. The dialogue between the characters in Pulp Fiction was without parallel when it came out. I had never heard anything like it in a movie before, and I don’t believe I have heard conversations done that way in any other film since. Tarantino himself, though landing closer to the mark than any other screenwriter, still hasn’t managed to completely reproduce the same kind of discourse to the same degree in his subsequent films (this is only my opinion of course). It’s the kind of language that is extremely mundane, disgustingly appalling at times, intentionally offensive, and still a masterful work of unparalleled artistic genius—all at the same time. I picked up on this a little bit as a teenager, but I lacked the perspective needed at the time to really appreciate it for what it was.
Along with the aforementioned dialogue, I should probably say something as well about the unusual sequencing of the film. Pulp Fiction has four separate stories that are interwoven with one another, and yet it’s cut and edited in a way that presents these stories to the viewer out of chronological order. What’s more, is that there is nothing overtly obvious within the film itself to let us know that the chronology has been doctored in such a way. Each section of the movie presents a title card before it commences, but there is nothing on any of them to denote what order we’re watching them in. You have to pick up on this entirely from the context of the story itself. The first time I saw it I wasn’t even aware of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle until halfway through the movie, and even then, it took a few more viewings until I was able to piece all of it together properly.
Anyway, I suppose I’m not writing about Pulp Fiction now because of the intriguing dialogue and unusual sequencing… those were obvious innovations in filmmaking that I noticed back in the day. Even then, I appreciated the conversations about the serious nature of foot massages, McDonalds restaurants in Europe, and captured American pilots in Vietnamese prison camps hiding precious family heirlooms inside their anal cavities to avoid confiscation. Nope… I’m writing about Pulp Fiction now, because somehow, in the middle of all that other stuff, I managed to miss the central message of the film entirely.
Pulp Fiction is one of the most theologically engaging spectacles I have ever seen. It took me 20 years (and a MA degree in Theology) to realize this, mostly because it’s not anywhere near the type of movie in which you might remotely expect to find an intense examination of theological concepts—but there it is: a glaring discourse about God—sitting squarely at its center, amidst a maze of vignettes, characters, and language that would turn away anyone who might naturally be looking for this type of thing in a Hollywood film. I’ve been in the Church my whole life, and I can say with an unrestrained amount of certainty, that most of the Church folks I’ve known would never watch this film all the way through. Which is perfectly ok… it’s just a movie after all and I completely understand that sentiment. I think many Christians, even after making it past the R-rating, would be immediately turned off by the first exchange of dialogue and the dozen or so F-bombs that would be waiting eagerly to greet them within the first 10 minutes. But this is the great paradox of Pulp Fiction—that in the middle of all the nastiness and human depravity on full, unapologetic display—it has something to say about God, forgiveness, redemption, and divine judgment, that is profoundly Christian to its very core.
Among the four separate stories being portrayed in Pulp Fiction, there is one situated at the theological center of the movie—this is the story about the two hitmen—Vincent played by John Travolta, and Jules played by Samuel L. Jackson. These two guys are brutal, violent, loathsome individuals. It’s obvious from the opening sequence of the movie that they have been murdering people for a living long enough to be completely numb to what they’re doing, and that they perhaps even enjoy it. None-the-less, these guys are professionals through and through. They have business to conduct, and they do it ruthlessly, without the slightest bit of hesitation or remorse.
Near the beginning of the film Jules and Vincent experience something that sets up the theological debate that we see them engaging in as the story progresses. We’re not supposed to like these kinds of people at all, and yet, this experience they share, and their conflicting interpretations of what it means, makes us extremely interested in what happens to them afterwards.
The dialogue between Jules and Vincent, from that point forward, is a debate about the significance of what they’ve experienced together. Jules interprets the experience as a miraculous, direct intervention from God himself. Vincent, on the other hand, interprets it as a random freak occurrence. The two of them eventually part ways over the incident, because Jules decides that he has experienced God’s grace so thoroughly that it demands a response from him. And his response is to leave behind his life as a vile hitman and follow a different path. At the end of the film we see actual proof that Jules has decided to lead a different kind of life—that his encounter with God is genuine. He knows that God has given him a way out of the path of destruction he’s been on for so long. And he proves that he has accepted God’s grace by, in turn, extending grace to the couple in the diner who try to rob him. After successfully disarming the man and getting the woman to surrender, he gives them all the money he has anyway. Then he lets them go in peace. This is the beginning of his life lived in a state of redemption. His story goes on to places and people we don’t see. We don’t know what exactly happens to him after that.
Vincent, however, is a completely different story. We know exactly what happens to Vincent, because the film, in its out-of-sequence order has already shown us his fate. He concludes that nothing about his life needs to change. He sees no evidence of God, and thus, no need to repent of his life of murder and drug addiction. He goes right on living the same life as if nothing happened. Moreover, and in perfect harmony with the overall theme of grace, after he makes this decision he goes on to witness a similar thing happen to someone else in the character of Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman)—who is miraculously delivered from the jaws of certain death when Vincent plunges a syringe full of adrenaline into her heart to save her from a drug overdose. Yet even this second experience is not enough to wake him up. He will go on being a hitman, and this fateful decision will eventually lead him directly to his own death. Sorry for the spoilers.
I don’t really feel like going into as much detail concerning Bruce Willis’s character Butch, but the vignette involving him is an additional example of how grace is a powerful antidote to hatred and contempt, even among bitter enemies. When faced with the opportunity to leave the man trying to kill him in the midst of torture and death, he instead chooses to go back and save him. This act of grace provides him with the chance at a completely new life, just as it did with Jules.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on this old classic from Tarantino. The director has never, to my knowledge, made mention of any personal faith that he may or may not have, and in the 25 years since its release, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this aspect of Pulp Fiction, but it’s obvious that this was the intended message of the film. Grace, when experienced, demands a response, and our choice of response, whether to extend grace to others, or to recoil further into our natural state of moral filthiness, determines the kind of life we will live, and what we leave behind us as we go.
This, my friends, is an echo of the message that Jesus left us. Christ has provided and demonstrated a stunning act of divine forgiveness and grace for all human beings. The only question is how we respond to it.
Hammering this theme home is the final (chronologically last) shot of the film which literally spells it out for us:
This past December wasn’t a very good month for me. I’ll spare you the details, and just say that, generally speaking, I spent the Christmas season cultivating a pretty good forest of melancholy, depression, and uncertainty about the future. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s normal to feel these things sometimes; it’s a natural part of life. You can’t feel the ups of life, if you don’t feel the downs. It’s not natural to always be walking around in a perpetual state of bliss and contentment. And it’s so easy to forget this when you plug into the matrix every day and are greeted by hundreds of smiling happy faces that are always on vacation, or falling in love, or having babies, or eating in the best restaurants on earth. I’m all for those things, and maybe these are, after all, the best things to share with each other in the public square type of environment that we have online. But, we all know of course, that in reality there’s just as many moments full of sadness and loss and failure and heartbreak. And sometimes the only real medicine is just feeling the pain, letting it wash over you, and giving it some time to pass. Anyway that’s what my December was like. It seems like ages ago now, but somewhere, back in the middle of it, I watched A Star Is Born.
I didn’t feel like writing about it at the time. It’s pretty heavy subject matter. And of course I’ve seen a handful of other movies since then, but this one has stuck to my insides in a way the others have not. I didn’t know what this movie was about beforehand. I was drawn to it mainly because I think Bradley Cooper is a great actor and I wanted to see how he did with his directorial debut. If I had read a plot synopsis ahead of time I might have avoided it. I’m not sure it’s the best kind of movie to watch if you’re feeling down.
It’s good storytelling though — dramatic, intense, cathartic, tragic — all the stuff you need for a film to be entertaining, emotionally engaging, and still relatable to those of us who aren’t out saving the world with Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, and Will Smith. I like those kinds of movies too, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that this film made me FEEL something in the midst of its realness and grittiness.
I think stories that portray self sacrifice (even in such a brutally heartbreaking way as this one) tend to generally have this effect. But when the sacrifice is unexpected, painfully explored, and woven together with love, it hits the heart strings with a hammer. That’s what this movie did to me anyway. That’s why I’m still thinking about it three months later. Correction: That’s why I’m still feeling it.
A Star Is Born is not a new story. It’s been done before. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have retold a story that Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson retold back in ‘76, which was a story that Judy Garland and James Mason starred in before them in ‘54, which was one that was previously portrayed by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937… I haven’t seen any of those, and I don’t know how well they all line up with each other, or how much they reflect this most recent iteration. But none of these are the original story anyway. There’s a much older one…
The one where God descends from Heaven to mingle among the common folks here on Earth. Then he claims a Church for himself, gives her a new life, makes her his Bride, shows her that she is loved, tells her to speak the truth, tells her to be real, and then gives himself up for her—because it was the only way—the only way for her to shine as brightly as possible.
A Star Is Born is proof that the best stories are still the oldest ones – even when they’re wrapped inside new garments.
Even when they reveal themselves inside the unlikely framework of a Hollywood film in 2019.
It was dark in the city of Indianapolis. Not in the whole city, of course… But in the sanctuary of West Park Christian Church – All the lights were out. We were nearing the end of our annual candlelight service, and the forty of us who were in attendance were struggling to make a circle that went around the entire room—A room, that at one time, had held almost a thousand people.
But that was a hundred years ago. All the people who had built the church were asleep now – awaiting the final Great Awakening at the end of the age. In the meantime, they had left us this building.
It was a magnificent place, even now – despite the fact that parts of it were slowly crumbling into dust, and the ground underneath was making every effort to swallow it back into the earth.
The steeple still towered boldly over the tops of the houses—a beacon of light and hope that reflected nothing of the city around it. For the neighborhood where it was nestled had long since fallen into decay and ruin and this GREAT HALL which had once shined brightly for the people of the West Side was now being slowly digested and absorbed by the darkness around it. The darkness was relentless, persistent, it never slept, it only ever kept moving… it only ever kept growing… Only ever kept plotting the demise of the old church.
I suppose that was why we NEEDED these candlelight services each year. We needed to turn all the actual lights out—-for just a moment—-We needed to be immersed in tangible darkness. And we needed to watch the darkness slowly give way to the illumination of tiny flames popping up, one by one, until we could see who we were again… so we could remember who we are… We needed this visual reminder of the responsibility that we had to, “Let our light shine..,” – As Jesus once said. I mean… after all… This is what we were taught – even as small children:
“THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE… I’M GONNA LET IT SHINE…”
As we stood there in the candlelight of the sanctuary, someone said a prayer. Then we sang, “Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm, all is bright…” Then we blew our candles out, gathered ourselves at the door, turned the lights off, and shuffled out into the silent night.
There were three teenage boys following me to the car – the oldest in my youth group –Resident hoodlums who had grown up across the street from the church. On their better days they were the Three Wise Men… But on most days – they were more like Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
The four of us piled into the Mitsubishi.
First Stop: The Valero Gas station just a block away. It was Christmas Eve after all, and I wanted to make sure the boys had the proper amount of snacks before the long night of video game playing that was ahead of them. I had been at the church for just over year, and in that time, I had learned that an abundance of SNACKS was the KEY to Youth Ministry.
As we pulled into the station, the boys ran into the store to gather provisions while I fed and watered the mule for my long ride back to Hendricks County.
I was still thinking about the Candlelight service we had just left. Or maybe I wasn’t so much thinking about it, as much as I was feeling the effects of it. It had hit me in the gut just enough to get my attention—To let me know that there was still a purpose… Still a reason to keep these old rituals… Still a reason to gather, to remember, to sing, to pray, and to celebrate.
I needed the reminder too–
I sort of felt like I had been on auto-pilot this entire Christmas Season. It felt like Christmas was just happening on TV, and I was barely tuning in. My mom had died several months earlier, and this was our first Christmas without her. I hadn’t realized how much of my experience of Christmas had been the direct result of my mother’s unquenchable enthusiasm for the Holiday.
But I knew it now.
I was still lost in my thoughts when the boys reappeared from their treasure hunt inside the convenience store – each of them already munching away on cans of Pringles and gulping down that insidious, poisonous, diabolical, and glorious elixir – Mountain Dew.
As I finished gassing up the ride, we all piled back in so I could take them back to their homes…
And that’s when it happened.
We heard it before we saw what it was. And it took us a few seconds to realize that the horrible sound emanating from the other side of the parking lot was the sound of a woman screaming. She was screaming loudly—the kind of screaming that didn’t just indicate distress—but pain.
Then we saw her. She was running directly at us, and having covered the distance of the parking lot before we were able to comprehend what we were hearing and seeing… There she was.
She slammed her hands onto the hood of my car, begging and screaming for help. My immediate reaction was FEAR. I thought to myself – No way, lady – no way – I’m outta here—Whatever her deal was, I didn’t want to get involved. I wanted to pretend this wasn’t happening. I wanted to leave.
But I couldn’t do that
My entire job as a youth minister would be completely pointless if I did that. There were three teenage boys—Boys who saw me as a mentor—who looked to me as an example—waiting to see what I would do.
So I froze.
I was looking at the woman who was standing in front of my car, trying to decide what to do. She wasn’t that much older than me. But whatever she had been through – the world hadn’t been kind to her. It was obvious from her appearance that whatever trauma was happening to her that night had started years ago – and this was just one more stop along the train tracks of despair.
It was a very cold night, but she had no coat on, no gloves, no hat—But the worse thing was all the blood. Her entire mouth and chin were covered in it, and there was so much that it had run down her neck and soaked the front of her shirt. It was all over her hands, her arms, and the side of her face where she had been wiping away tears. She was obviously hurt, and she was desperate for help.
I was terrified.
But I put the window down and asked her what I could do? She was sobbing, and she wasn’t speaking clearly, but I was able to understand that she wanted me to drive her to her dad’s house a few miles away. I almost said no. I almost told her that I would call someone for her, or call an ambulance. But she was crying uncontrollably, and all she could say was that she wanted to go home to her dad.
So I told the boy riding shotgun to move to the back…. And I told the woman to get in.
As she climbed into the passenger seat, I offered to take her to the hospital. But she said it wasn’t that bad—that it looked worse than it felt—that she had been hit harder than this before.
So I followed her directions…pulled up to the house she had pointed out, and waited a few moments until someone answered the door and she disappeared inside.
The boys in the back were silent for a few minutes after we drove away. And then one of them asked: “Why did you do that?”
I gave him the proper “YOUTH MINISTER” answer at the time… Something along the lines of, “that’s what Jesus would have done.” But the truth is, at the time, I didn’t really have a good answer. If those boys hadn’t been with me, I probably would not have helped that woman. I probably would have left her there. Who wants some strange person bleeding all over their nice clean car?
So I dropped the boys off at their homes, and then I began driving back out of the city—driving back to the safety and comfort of a home that was far away from this madness. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened that night.
And I’m still thinking about it five years later.
What was it that night, those five years ago?
What was it that filled me with so many fears?
-from a poor woman who had nothing but helplessness and tears.
These were the people that Jesus had helped.
These were the ones he pulled from the dust.
These were the ones who gave Him their trust.
That woman had scared me because her life and brokenness were all out in the open.
And the helplessness she showed on the outside
reflected something in me…
…something I didn’t want others to see.
That I was helpless too–
That my own heart was broken–
That even though my pain was much better hid–
I still needed a Savior just as much as she did.
But I had a place.
A place to run away.
A place with a wall to keep the darkness at bay.
Something to hide behind.
Something to protect.
Something that allowed me the freedom to deflect
the pain of lost people, out in the cold…
…the cries of a woman whose body had been sold.
It’s easy, so easy… to turn a blind eye,
or to judge these people with an indignant sigh.
Believe me, I know, I’ve done it many times.
I’ve acted like no one has paid for my crimes.
But someone has…
And we sing to Him here…
We sing without hunger, or coldness, or fear.
We sing for the Day when all things will be NEW.
When this darkness will pass and His light remain true.
The Light of the World
That’s the Savior we know.
The one we remember as we stand in the glow
of the candles we light, and the hope we profess,
in front of a world that knows only distress.
His name is Jesus,
and He is the same–
Yesterday, today, and forever He reigns.
And if we fail to follow His path,
To love and to serve the hurting people we find
Then it’s only because we too have grown blind.
* “For the world is sleeping in the dark…
which the Church cannot fight, if it’s asleep in the light.” *
It was dark in the city that night. Not in the whole city, of course…
In the sanctuary of the Christian Church – All the lights were on.
*I stole this line from the late great saint–Keith Green.
At the beginning of this year I received an ominous text message from my friend and former housemate Pastor Keith Doyle over in Ohio. I’m bringing this up first and foremost to underscore the fact that what happened after said text message can be directly traced back to him – which should absolve me of at least some of the guilt I now harbor within my soul for falling victim to the current scourge of humanity: the video game known as FORTNITEBattle Royale.
If you’ve never heard of Fortnite, then I humbly suggest that you now fall to your knees and praise the Lord God Almighty for delivering you out of the hands of the devil – you are truly blessed. And may I go so far as to add that you might be wise to stop reading now lest you wish to flirt with the danger inherently encapsulated within the knowledge I’m about to share here.
If you’re unfamiliar with my writing or sense of humor, rest assured, I’m only half joking, and this really isn’t as serious as all that. In truth, I just felt like writing about this because it seems to be coming up more often in conversations as of late. I’ve been hearing more and more about peoples’ kids or grandkids playing Fortnite and I’ve seen friends who are my age posting on Facebook about their kids’ obsession with Fortnite. I also have friends who are teachers that have mentioned the kids in their classes talking about it. It is not unusual for me to hear people around my age or older puzzled, flabbergasted, or generally surmising with grimaced faces over various phenomena that the youngsters are into these days… this is, after all, part of life as they say… what is unusual, is that, having delved into the uttermost depths of one such phenomena for nearly a year, I now find myself in a unique position to educate my fellow Adulticans on this topic. And more importantly, this is all I can now do to hopefully give some meaning to the countless, nay, unholy, amount of late night hours I have spent “researching” this subject. And by research I’m referring to the knowledge and experience I’ve been able to successfully mine before stumbling into bed at midnight (on numerous occasions) after an hour or two of a video game session that mostly consisted of me failing miserably while being cussed out by 6 year olds and having my manhood called into question by 12 year olds.
When I started playing Fortnite it was just another video game, but it has since become something much larger. The last time something this huge happened in the video game industry was in 1985 with the North American release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Obviously, many technological advancements have occurred since then, but the explosion of Fortnite popularity across the entire globe in such a relatively short amount of time has nothing to do with technological advancement – the game’s graphics actually take a few steps backward (in the example of Minecraft) and look very cartoonish rather than following the traditional trajectory of attempting to make games look as realistic as possible. What has made this game so popular to millions, across so many countries, isn’t a massive advancement in graphics or microchip speed technology, but rather a tremendous breakthrough in the psychological dimension of video games.
Now, I just want to say before going any further, that I’ve grown up with video games – they’ve been there in the background of my existence ever since I saw my parents playing Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 when I was four. I grew up watching games continually develop and progress into more mesmerizing and complex forms with each passing year. I remember politicians in the early 90s arguing over the effects of video game violence and imposing a rating system. I remember preachers on TV railing against them as abominations of a society that had lost its collective moral anchors. I’ve heard all the rhetoric. So, the last thing I want to do is call a video game evil, or tell parents that they shouldn’t let their kids play it. What I do want to do, on the other hand, is offer some insight into how this particular video game has changed the industry as a whole, and comment on why I think it’s important that parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles know why.
I need to start by backing up just a bit…
Over the last 10 years or so the video game industry has been slowly becoming something that is increasingly non-tactile and more digital. Actually, the transformation is pretty much complete for the most part. Digital gaming, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, means you don’t have to actually own a physical copy of a game in order to play it. The same thing has been happening with movies and books as well over the past decade. You can download and watch a movie or read a book (after paying a full or sometimes discounted price) without ever touching anything but a keyboard, mouse, screen, or controller. In regards to gaming, this mainly started with the mobile app games that you can download on your smartphones. Most of these games are free or only cost a buck or two to download. The people who created and own these games don’t make much money from the initial act of you “getting” the game. They make money off allowing you to buy additional items, abilities, characters, and new levels inside the games themselves. So back in the day, you went to Wal-Mart with $50 after selling all your He-Men in Mom’s garage sale and bought one Nintendo game that you could own for the rest of your life. Nowadays, you get the game for free, but if you want to use the sword of Conan the Barbarian to defeat the Zombies on Planet Mordor, instead of using Grandma’s old broken shotgun that everyone can use for free, you “buy” the sword inside the game with REAL MONEY and then you “own” it digitally.
World of Warcraft pioneered this idea many years ago, but at that time you still had to buy a physical copy of the game as well. This is the type of game that Fortnite is, and even though it’s not the first game to do this, it is by far the most successful at it. Owning Fortnite is free, it is available on every major gaming console, mobile device, and PC. All you have to do is download it, and you can play the same exact game that everyone else is playing. You never have to spend a single dime to do this. This is very important for parents to understand, so I’ll say it again: Your kid can play the same game that every other person in the world is playing, without any disadvantage to gameplay, and with the same abilities and skills required of every other player.
If this is the case, how did the creators of Fortnite gross $318 million in the month of May alone?
The answer: V-Bucks. V-Bucks (virtual bucks) are the currency used within the game, and you can earn miniscule amounts of this “money” by completing certain tasks in the game. But in order to get enough virtual bucks to actually buy anything significant, you have to spend REAL bucks. I’m no mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll make this simple – 1,000 V-Bucks costs $9.99 USD. So, let’s say your kid, or grandkid, niece or nephew, talks you into entering your credit card number into the game and getting them some V-Bucks to spend… no big deal. They can then use the virtual currency to make their character have different outfits, costumes, masks, backpacks, etc. It doesn’t give them any advantage in the game – they just get to choose how they want their character to look. They call these various aesthetic choices “Skins.” These Skins cost different amounts, and there are several ways to get them, but they all cost money. The most desired Skins are typically around 2,000 V-Bucks, which is $20 dollars. Terms such as common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary are used to denote how much a skin is worth.
But the real genius of the Fortnite creators (Epic Games) is that they consistently update the game, and the amount of Skins available on a weekly basis, with major updates occurring every few months. They call these major changes to the game “Seasons.” When I began playing Fortnite at the beginning of this year it was in Season 2, and now it is in Season 6 already, with Season 7 scheduled for the Holidays. What this means from a business perspective is that there is an increasingly endless amount of “digital products” available to buy.
In simple terms, it’s like buying the same FREE video game over and over again – you don’t have to buy it at all – but if you want to be cool, you’ll buy it as many times as you can. I personally don’t pay for it, but this is the way that the game inherently teaches kids to think, and subsequently bug the hell out of their parents.
There’s nothing too terribly shady going on here – it’s not hidden, and it’s not tricking anyone. Most kids are smart enough to understand it. In fact, one of the reasons I’m writing this review is that most kids probably understand it way better than most adults.
Just in case you’re having trouble, allow me to explain it like this: Let’s say you walk into a fast food joint, walk up to the counter, and they give you a cheeseburger, large fries, and a large coke – for free. Everyone else in the place has the same exact thing. No one can ever get anything different, no one can ever get more than ayone else, no one can ever get less… HOWEVER, if you choose, you can pay $20 to have the same exact cheeseburger wrapped in a different color paper, the same exact number of fries put into a different color of fry box, and the same large coke poured into a different color cup with a fancy design on it. You might be reading this thinking, hmmm… that can’t be right, or hmmm… that sounds ridiculous, or hmmm… who would pay $20 for the same food to be put in different colored containers, that’ll never work. Well, it’s true. It’s happening. This is the Fortnite business model. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent every month so video game characters can be dressed in new outfits.
Never before in the history of humanity have people been able to make so much money from selling thin air in such an honest manner, without tricking or deceiving anyone. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions yet, but my own opinion is that this is a psychological phenomenon we’re witnessing on a scale that’s never been seen – and it indicates a significant, collectively driven departure from reality. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all to be honest. I just see what’s happening.
With all that said, I’ll make a few comments on the actual gameplay itself. There’s not much to it actually – you drop onto an island with 99 other players (you can play a solo game where it’s everyone for themselves, or you can play as part of a two-person or four-person team), and then you just run around really fast, build things and shoot people… and dance. You win the game by being the last person (or team) alive at the end. The island itself is extremely large, but the playable area slowly shrinks down which forces all the players into a smaller and smaller area – this makes a typical game last around 15-20 minutes. If you get killed in the game, you’re done. You have to go back into the “game lobby” and then queue up a completely new match to try again. The sudden death aspect of the game provides a pretty significant adrenaline rush. I noticed it the first time I played it. The brain sensation feels a lot like gambling (I don’t gamble, but I’ve visited a few casinos before, and I’ve played my fair share of Texas hold ‘em in the past). You definitely get some kind of dopamine spike from playing the game, and encountering other players that are trying to kill you. Take that for what you will. My own personal opinion on this matter is that it has the effect of making the game highly addictive in the same way that gambling can be addictive. And I should mention as well that you are always playing against real people. There are no computer players in this game. Behind every “Skin” is an actual human being sitting in front of a TV screen, computer monitor, or smartphone – some of them with tiny black dogs named Jazz looking at them like they are insane.
When I play Fortnite, I typically play as part of a random team. This means that I don’t typically know the people who are on my team from one game to the next. My friend Keith abandoned the game many months ago… a much wiser man than I. But I do have a headset which allows me to talk to other players, and I’ve met people playing the game from all over the place. There’s plenty of older people, and lots of college students, but most of them have been younger kids. My most memorable experience along these lines was the day I was thrown onto a team with three very young British lads. The youngest one sounded like he was four or five. Their leader was probably closer to 9 or 10 and he greatly enjoyed calling me a “bloody yank” and bossing me around and shouting military commands at me like he was Winston Churchill. At any rate, I just mention this so that parents out there are aware of the fact that your kids could be interacting with absolutely anyone. That’s just something to keep in mind.
Fortnite definitely has its own language as well, and I’ve defined a few of the terms already, but I’ll provide a list below of the ones that I think will be most helpful for people to know. Aside from that, I’ll just re-iterate that this Fortnite craze is pretty significant for younger generations. In my estimation, we haven’t yet seen its full magnitude, and the ability to buy additional merchandise like toys and clothes is only just beginning. But make no mistake, for kids these days, this is every bit as crazy as the Summer of 1977 when Star Wars first landed on planet Earth. Fads come and go more quickly these days I think, but this one’s a juggernaut – it’s breaking through all cultural and socio-economic barriers, and kids and young adults are flocking to it by the millions. Fortnite has everything from professional players that compete in high stakes tournaments, to people broadcasting live video of their games, to entire YouTube channels devoted to commentary on gameplay. There are parents that even hire coaches to teach their kids how to play and win. Last month the top Fortnite player in the world – Tyler Blevins a.k.a. Ninja – was the first video gamer to ever be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine.
I hope this helps any adults out there who feel left in the dust. At the end of the day, it’s only a video game—and this too shall pass.
Seasons = Term used to define major changes to the game and game map that occur about every two to three months.
Battle Pass = This is a purchasable reward system that allows players to unlock various skins and other items by completing certain tasks within the game. It typically costs about $10 and expires at the end of every season. Which means you have to buy it again at the start of a new season.
V-Bucks = Virtual Bucks. You pay $9.99 USD in real world currency for a thousand of them.
Skins = Term used for the clothing and general way a player’s in-game character looks. Most of the money that is spent on Fortnite is spent on skins. Kids collect skins the way us older people once collected trading cards.
Default Skins = Skins that are free and used by anyone who refuses to pay actual money to play Fortnite.
Streamers = These are people who connect their gaming monitors or consoles to internet sites (like YouTube or Twitch) so people can watch them play. This allows them to generate revenue based on the number of people watching them. Streamers with massive numbers of viewers can make millions of dollars from allowing advertisers to monetize their channels.
Noobs = This term is not confined to the Fortnite community, but it refers to people who are just beginning to play the game and have no idea what’s going on. It is typically used by many young Fortnite gamers as a derogatory term accompanied by some kind of expletive. Sometimes used in conjunction with the term “Default Skin” to bolster the intended insult.
Squeakers = Refers to very young males that play Fortnite while constantly talking and bragging about their accomplishments, singing rap songs, and generally trying to annoy anyone else that can hear them. When I get put into a game with one or more Squeakers I just back out of the match and restart into a different lobby. They do not understand things like logic, reason, or common courtesy, there are legions of them, and they will be running the country one day. Lord, have mercy on us.
Pros = Typically refers to people who make money by playing Fortnite, but most younger gamers use the term for anyone who has a discontinued Skin from an early Season that they will never be able to own.
GG = Means “Good Game,” and is a common way to bid a fond farewell to teammates when the game is over.
Harry Pottering = This is a term used in-game (usually with accompanying expletive) to inform your teammates that you have accidently trapped yourself underneath a ramp which is vaguely reminiscent of the way Harry Potter was forced to live underneath the Dursley’s staircase.
1v1 = One player versus one other player, when no one else is around, or no one else is left alive, and the entire game is on the line.
Mats = Materials. Refers to material resources in the form of Wood, Brick, or Metal that are collected from the gaming environment and used to build things.
Loot = This is a blanket term used to refer to guns, ammo, materials, armor, bandages, med kits, and other items that must be scavenged from the gaming environment, discovered in hidden treasure chests, or taken from fallen players. When a player dies in the game, all their “loot” is dropped onto the ground for other players to collect.
Well, in an effort to make my movie reviews somewhat relevant to current box office trends (not that I’m overly concerned with this) I’ve decided to jot down some reflections on an old childhood favorite that has continued to inspire periodic sequels from time to time – the most recent of which was just released into theaters this weekend.
Full disclosure: I did rewatch the original Predator a few weeks ago, mostly because I was just in the mood – and maybe also because Arnold was 39 when he filmed it, and I’m 39 now… and I needed the abstract motivation of watching a 39 year-old man at the top of his game.
At any rate, this is one of those movies that’s heavily steeped in nostalgia for me personally – and probably a lot of other dudes who saw it as a kid. And listen, I’m not sexist at all, but this is definitely a dude film. It’s unashamedly packed with bros, huge bicep close ups, magnificent explosions, guns that almost never seem to run out of ammo, blood, guts, cigars, Jesse Ventura, and profuse sweating — all elegantly wrapped in a fine veneer of exaggerated grunts, yells, and other various ape sounds. What can I say? It’s a product of its time, it’s pure 80s Schwarzenegger, and you can literally smell the testosterone on the DVD cover.
I have very vivid childhood memories surrounding this movie. But lest you gasp with inward incredulousness, don’t worry — my dad wouldn’t let me watch Predator until it came out on TV – edited of course. And he had actually provided a second layer of censorship by recording it from the TV onto a blank VHS tape so he could edit out the parts that were too gory for me. I was utterly dismayed by this due to the fact that Dad took my older brother Chad to see it when it first came out in 1987. I had never waited so long to see a movie that had been out for three years. And I made up for it by binge re-watching that VHS tape until it fell apart, disintegrated into tiny pieces of plastic, and was absorbed by the earth. It captured my imagination so completely that I would go into the woods near our house with my squirt guns and pretend I was one of the commandos in the movie. But don’t worry, I finally quit doing that a couple of years ago. Everyone has to grow up eventually.
It’s interesting to watch this movie now, and to think about it on the level of analysis. I really wasn’t watching it this time around with the expectation that it held anything deeper in its story, but it actually does, and I was surprised by this fact.
On the surface Predator is exactly what you’d expect it to be – a typical 80s action film. It’s about an elite special forces unit traipsing through the deep central American rainforest in search of political hostages. They’re led by Schwarzenegger and Apollo Creed – old friends who find themselves at odds over the ethical dilemmas of combat. Schwarzenegger’s character, named Dutch (probably a subtle nod to his accent which was still thickly European at the time) is struggling with his identity throughout the film. He is, essentially, the perfect hunter leading a group of other hunters in an effort to find and extinguish the lives of his enemies. We know from carefully placed exposition that he’s been doing this for a long time, and that, along the way, he’s developed a sense of righteous justification to provide a moral anchor for what he does. Dillon (Carl Weathers) gives personification to Dutch’s conscience, reminding him that his self-righteousness is only a flimsy illusion, and that underneath it all, he’s nothing more than a professional killer.
The backbone of the plot involves Dutch being slowly and methodically stripped of his illusions and forced to embrace his true identity completely. In this regard, the alien monster who hunts and destroys all the other men is only a mirror reflection of Schwarzenegger’s character. The Predator is doing the same thing that Dutch and his men are doing – only for different reasons, and with greater ability. We see this theme most clearly displayed near the end when Dutch asks the creature what he is – and the creature only responds with the same question. They’re both the same thing.
Now, I’m sure there’s probably some deep psychological meaning to all this, and it’s probably ripe with Jungian archetypal imagery and what not… but what I take away from it is the idea that all of us have a dark side, we all have a monster on the inside – it’s something we usually hide and cover up with layers upon layers of protection and armor. But if we are willing to be honest about it, calling it what it is – then we’ve taken the first step toward confronting it. And confronting monsters is what heroes do.
I think that’s what the movie is saying. I could be wrong, but I’m going to go with this interpretation… because it’s my movie review.
And remember folks, if all else fails, just take Arnold’s advice and, “get to da choppah!”
This film review is brought to you by the number twelve.
A very long time ago, before I was born, and probably before you were born too… someone decided that twelve was the number of roses it takes for a man to show a woman how much he really loves her—or to get out of the doghouse—whichever the case may be.
And a very long time before that, someone decided that Christmas should consist of twelve days. They wrote a song about that, but I’m not sure why because I’ve never seen a twelve day-long Christmas in my life.
But way back, even before that, someone decided that clocks should measure the progression of twelve hour intervals. The plot thickens…
And still further back than that, someone decided that a year should consist of twelve months.
Now, since we’re talking about the number twelve, and because Bible nerding is what I do for a living, it would be remiss of me if I failed to mention that twelve is a very important number in the Bible. In about the middle of Genesis, for instance, God decides that a man named Jacob should have twelve sons, and that their descendants should be divided into twelve tribes. And much later on, a guy named Jesus who was descended from one of those twelve tribes came along, and he picked twelve men to begin the process of changing the entire world. And eventually, at the end of the Bible, you can read about the Heavenly City with its twelve foundations of precious stones, twelve gates going in and out, and twelve angels guarding the gates. The Bible doesn’t joke around with the number twelve.
And, of course, we also have a dozen eggs, a dozen donuts, a dime a dozen, the dirty dozen, and six and one half dozen of the other (which by my calculations is still twelve… I think.)
However! Somewhere back in the depths of history, in the middle of all this twelve business, some king in medieval England began using something called a jury, at times consisting of twelve men, to decide whether or not a person was guilty of a crime. He wasn’t the first person to have this idea, which according to some sources finds its origins in ancient Greece. But whatever its true beginnings may be, the idea caught on, and it was eventually adopted into English law, and from there it was passed on to the legal system in America. And then in 1957 Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet made a movie about it called 12 Angry Men.
I’ve known about this film for many years, but this was my first time to watch the enduring classic that keeps resurfacing into contemporary culture from time to time—a testament to the ageless nature of what it explores and displays in regards to human nature. And despite my opening reflections on the number twelve, this movie has little to do with the number of “angry men” in the picture, and more specifically about what these men are doing, and what is making them angry. If I could boil it down to the simplest of terms—they’re trying to make a decision. They’re trying to decide if the 18-year-old kid on trial really did stab his father to death. If he did, he will most certainly be given the death penalty. And for an added layer of tension, the kid in question is from an un-specified (non-white) ethnicity, and he hails from a likewise un-named slum in New York City. In 1957 America, this kid is the lowest of the low.
A preliminary vote by the jury members results in 11 guilty votes and only one for not-guilty. And herein lies the drama. It takes a unanimous 12 votes to convict or acquit, so this one guy (played masterfully by Henry Fonda) is the only thing keeping the other 11 guys from quickly escaping the confines of the sweltering back room in the courthouse—and speedily condemning a young man to the execution that would follow. On this basis alone, Henry Fonda appeals to the rest of them saying, “It’s not easy to raise my hand, and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”
And so they talk. If you want to find out where they end up after the lengthy, heated, discussion that follows—go watch the film.
There are several different themes orbiting around the central discussion taking place in 12 Angry Men, including leadership, conformity, group dynamics, racism, class inequality, and personal prejudice. Each of these themes is personified by at least one or two of the jurors, but my favorite of these themes is the leadership exemplified in Fonda’s Juror Number 8, as he stands alone against the rest of the group, humbly beseeching them to carefully consider the gravity of their decision, and exhorting them to engage in honest dialogue with each other. Throughout the course of the film he takes the most punishment from the rest of the group, and still remains steadfast in his conviction despite their incessant criticism.
And it’s this theme of leadership that has continued to resonate in my thoughts over the last few weeks, as I’ve pondered the real meaning of a movie like this—not only what it meant when it was made some 62 years ago, but what it means today.
What is real leadership? Does this movie show us an example of what real leadership looks like?
Yes, I believe it does.
First off, real leadership seeks to reconcile opposing groups of people (if possible), rather than push them further apart. Henry Fonda, though standing alone against the rest of the group, never says or does anything to intentionally insult them. His goal is reconciliation between their decision and his, and he knows that this cannot be accomplished by alienating them. There are moments when he speaks sternly to them, and moments when he risks pushing them too far, but he does this only to keep them focused on the problem at hand. Bad leaders don’t know how to reconcile opposing groups or opinions. Bad leaders only know how to create more dissonance, confusion, and fracturing among people. The problem that these men in the movie are attempting to solve will not go away unless they can come together in some kind of agreement, one way or the other. Keeping them at the table, keeping them talking, encouraging them to dig down and really think together—this is the main task that Fonda’s character engages in from the beginning—and it makes him a good leader.
Second, real leadership is humble and kind. Fonda’s character never assumes a position of dominance over the other men. He doesn’t try to be the leader. But we the audience (like the other characters in the movie) recognize him as the leader by what he does, and how he does it. He meets arrogance with kindness, he counters emotional outbursts with the calm delineation of salient details, and he arrests pre-judgment with simple rationalism. His goal is not to make the other men agree with him, or force them into a decision they’re not comfortable with—his goal is to examine the issue as thoroughly as possible, and come to the best possible conclusion—together.
Third, and I’ll close with this point—real leadership doesn’t lie. The entire purpose of Fonda’s character engaging in an opposing dialogue with the rest of the men in the group is to find the truth. Moreover, he admits to them near the beginning of their discussion that he simply “doesn’t know” whether the kid is guilty or not, and that this is why they need to talk about it further—so they can be sure of what the truth actually is. We can see the doubt in his eyes at times, and we can see that he isn’t completely confident about his position, but he never tries to hide this from the other men. He doesn’t create a false persona of exuberance, or phony confidence to convince them that he’s right and they’re wrong. Bad leaders don’t care about this. Bad leaders just want to please the majority so they can go on being the boss.
As I said earlier, there are many other themes floating through the narrative of 12 Angry Men, not the least of which is how easy it is to make conclusions about anything without actually thinking. It’s much easier, for all of us, to formulate conclusions based on our emotions, or based on our past experiences, or to simply go along with whatever the closest crowd to us is doing… it’s much more difficult, on the other hand, to apply focused reasoning and critical thinking to our collective issues and problems. It takes time, it takes energy, and it takes a willingness to be ok with the fact that we could, possibly, be wrong. And it’s always difficult to do this with people who think differently, and who easily draw conclusions that are completely opposite to our own. But that’s how problems actually get solved.
We might all be able to learn a thing or two from this old movie.
Last weekend our Summer Movie Nights came to an end with Jordan Brower drafting The Road into our lineup as the grand finale. Of the 10 movies we watched, five of them centered around road trips or journeys of some kind, including The Road of course. This was my second time seeing this film. The first time I saw it was in Ohio around the time it was first released in 2009. I wasn’t sure what to make of it then, but the last eight years have given me some perspective – in particular, in the area of grasping onto whatever hope is available when circumstances seem to offer nothing but hopelessness. And this is what The Road is about. It’s a really simple story about a father and son traveling south through a post-apocalyptic America that is very very gray. It’s like, a million shades of gray. Sorry, bad joke. But seriously, the colors gray and brown should have gotten Oscar nods for their supporting roles. Even though the setting is post-apocalyptic/dystopian, this is not a science fiction story. We’re never given an explanation as to how the world went dark – we just know that the lights went out and never came back on. The Boy was born shortly after the apocalypse began, and he appears to be around 9 or 10 years old, so the characters are very accustomed to this world. Those who have survived have adapted to it, mostly in very horrible ways. The Man, played by Aragorn, is on a mission to protect “the fire,” which burns very brightly through the innocence, goodness, and kindness of his son, but which is slowly burning out in his own heart. Through a series of vignettes and encounters with other people along the journey (including a house full of cannibals, a group of red neck marauders, and a lovable and lonely Robert Duvall), we see the push and pull that occurs between the father and son as they struggle to survive and keep moving. The Boy has such a pure heart that he doesn’t understand the concept of evil, and isn’t instinctively aware of the danger that exists all around him. The father knows this, and he struggles to keep his son’s innocence intact as much as possible, while still preparing him to face the world without him when he’s gone. It’s a very grim notion to ponder – how far can we go in the protection of innocence before our actions bring about the corruption we’re seeking to avoid? If you really think about it, it’s not a simple question to answer. And even though the plot of The Road is simple, as I said, it still manages to produce these very complex moral questions. In other words, it really makes you think. And for all its grayness, hopelessness, and general mood of depression, there does exist, under all the layers of dirt and grime, a small ray of light – the hope that the boy carries and embodies. We see it in the way he enjoys a Coca-cola for the first time, in the way he pleads with his dad to share their food with a stranger, in the desire to show mercy to a thief, and in the way he heartbrokenly asks the question, “Are we still the good guys?” That’s a question we should all pause and ask ourselves from time to time. Thankfully, this movie doesn’t leave us without that bit of hope at the end. As Aragorn himself once said during the battle of Helms Deep – “there is always hope.”
I give The Road 4 Cofftomic Particles 4 Cofflames 3 Cans of Coffgoods 3 Emotional Coffcoasters, 1 Coffcartand 2 Full Moons 🌕🌕.
This is one of my top 5 favorite films of all time.
~~Originally posted on August 6, 2017~~
Sometimes, really good movies aren’t just something you watch – they’re something that happens to you. The first time I saw this past week’s movie it was quite an experience – mostly because it was a spontaneous decision, and I had no clue what it was about as I walked into the theater. It was a cold night in February of 2010, and I had gone to the movies to escape the rest of my life for a couple of hours. I used to do that more often when I lived around a lot of people. I couldn’t explain why, but sometimes I would just feel a need to get away, to be alone, to not have to talk to anyone, to rest and think. I’ve since learned that this is normal introvert behavior. That particular night my house had filled up with so many people that I couldn’t move. I was standing in the kitchen, watching as wave after wave of college students began devouring the meal I had spent half the day preparing. I was glad for my part in feeding them, and felt a deep satisfaction in my soul – and also an intense urge to quietly exit through the backdoor that I had been slowly pushed up against. So I did. And 10 minutes later I was sitting in an almost empty theater waiting to see what in the world The Book of Eli was about.
The movie pulled me in really slowly as it introduced me to Denzel Washington’s character (Eli) – a man walking alone through a post apocalyptic wasteland, bedding down for the night in some old shack as he carefully stokes to life the remaining juice in a scratched and scarred generation one iPod. He’s listening to Al Green’s – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and it contains the first words you hear in the movie, providing the background chorus to the drama about to unfold on the screen. It tells us what is going on inside this strange character we’re being introduced to – it’s a very sad lament – the honest prayer of a man who has had his heart ripped out, and is desperately crying out for a reason to keep going. The song reflects the scarred over wounds we see on Eli’s body as he changes his shirt and settles in for the night.
Eventually you learn that Eli has been carrying something of great value for the past 30 years – the last remaining Bible to exist in North America. There had been some kind of war in the past that ended with the victors destroying all the rest of them. Conflict ensues when Eli encounters the villain of the story, a crafty warlord named Carnegie – played by Gary Oldman – who just so happens to be in search of a Bible. Every day he sends out raiding parties to scour the surrounding wastelands in the hope of finding one. When these two characters meet each other, all Hell literally breaks loose.
I won’t venture into much more detail about the plot, but at the core of this film is the examination of something that Christianity has had to wrestle with since the 4th century when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and something it’s still dealing with today – the clash between genuine religious experience and the perversion of it by political entities that seek to use religion as a tool of manipulation to gain or maintain power over people. At the time, I was getting my Master’s Degree in Church History (which is also an examination between these two opposing forces), and I found it very impressive that the history of Christianity was so elegantly captured and personified through the drama unfolding between these two movie characters.
Carnegie’s christianity is political. Eli’s is personal. Carnegie wants to use the Bible to gain more power over people. Eli wants to find a place where people have the freedom to discover the Bible on their own terms. Carnegie wants to use it like a weapon to manipulate the masses. Eli wants to preserve its integrity as a beacon of hope. In the middle of this conflict is Solara – the adopted daughter and slave of Carnegie. It’s her character that brings hope and brightness into the story as she escapes the abusive confines of her home to follow after Eli and eventually latch onto the same almighty power that drives him.
When the credits rolled I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I think it’s very very difficult for filmmakers to make a religious-themed movie that is not only well done, but that doesn’t come across as cheesy, or that doesn’t entirely miss the point of what faith is even about. I shudder inside when I think of all the bad – and I mean terrible – Christian movies that elevate mediocrity and overall suckiness to an art form. And thankfully, the twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes made one that rises above that kind of canned nonsense.
I didn’t just watch their film that night all those years ago – I felt it.
And that is why I give The Book of Eli 5 Coffstars , 4 Coff-buds , 2 Coff-tickets , 2 hallelujah amens , and 1 cat-kabob
Karlie Crouch’s pick for our group’s Thursday Night Film Time this week was Southpaw. I had not yet seen this one, but Antoine Fuqua has been one of my favorite directors since Training Day back in 2001, and his follow up – Tears of the Sun in 2003. His most defining characteristic is being able to deftly genre-jump his way from project to project, each time applying his craft to an entirely different category of film. He’s dropped a few stinkers along the way for sure (2004’s King Arthur with Clive Owen for instance), but Southpaw isn’t one of them. Released in 2015, it’s a recent entry into his catalogue, and with the writing chops of Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), he’s brought all of his accumulated film experience into the boxing genre.
Of course, when it comes to making a boxing film, any director and screenwriter has to, at some point in their process, honestly contend with the fact that they’re treading on sacred ground that was long ago bought and paid for with Stallone’s blood, sweat, and tears. Sutter seems to have made a career out of trampling on holy ground, but in this case he’s much more careful with his screenplay. He doesn’t completely abandon the classic elements that made the Rocky saga great, but pays subtle homage to them while also injecting his own brand of tragic realism into the genre–and Sutter’s realism is very dark. Combined with Fuqua’s vision, the result is an experience that drags you down down down into a pit of despair as you watch the main character spiral into a black hole. But it doesn’t leave you there! (Manchester By The Sea, I’m looking at you – 😫)
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the reigning boxing champ who is on top of the world. Without giving anything away, something happens to him about 20 minutes into the story that is the sitting-comfortably-in-your-home equivalent of receiving an unexpected uppercut to the jaw. It’s in that moment when you realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t Rocky.’ Thankfully, the story doesn’t end at this point, and you get to watch as this damaged character is slowly dismantled, re-arranged, healed, and put back together – mostly by Forrest Whitaker – the aging trainer/mentor figure. Whitaker (Tick Wills) is at his finest as he ambles from quiet discourse to energetic pep talk to loud bustling exclamations of woe and regret – all punctuated by an array of facial expressions that say more than his actual words. The meat of the story is the process by which Tick steadily hammers away at Billy’s hard outer shell in order to fully reveal the chaotic mess that’s inside him. Once this happens, Billy Hope is able to piece together a redemption story that can only really begin with his full acceptance of his own mistakes. He has to learn how to embrace responsibility for his own downfall, his own weaknesses, and how he has played a role in hurting those closest to him. The enemy he fights in the ring is a reflection of the enemy he fights inside his own heart and mind. Both fights are brutal, both fights are desperate, and both fights are metaphors for the kinds of battles that we all, as human beings on this planet, must face every day, in our own ways.
I give Southpaw 4 Coff-stars , 3 Coff-curls , 6 bowls of Coff-corn🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿, and 1 knockout 💥