Bumblebee

Bumblebee

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.

 

The Theology of Pulp Fiction

The Theology of Pulp Fiction

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:

grace

A Star was Born

A Star was Born

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.

The music is good too.

Predator

Predator

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!”

12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men

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.

The Road

The Road

~~Originally posted on September 23, 2017~~

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 🌕🌕.

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli

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

 

Southpaw

Southpaw

~~Originally posted on August 11, 2017~~

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 💥

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite

~~Originally posted on August 18, 2017~~

It was sometime in the middle of 2005 when the name ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ began registering in my brain enough for me to actually devote energy into finding out what it meant. Released the previous summer, the film had already become an independent cult classic, and as more and more people were talking about it, I became curious. Everyone else I knew had already seen it. Good grief, even my own parents had seen it by that time. And then, one night, I found myself sitting in the home of my old pal Christopher Jones, being forced to watch it. I’ll admit, I didn’t entirely get the humor during that first viewing. There were parts that I found really hilarious, but just as many that made me cringe with awkwardness, or feel genuinely sad for the characters. Watching the movie is almost like experiencing a symphony that hits these three notes over and over again. Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… But something has happened to me in the years since I first watched Napoleon Dynamite – something that has made me unable to watch it now without a huge, unquenchable grin on my face the entire time.

Napoleon Dynamite takes place in the rural town of Preston, Idaho – a place that feels like it dropped anchor in about 1987 and was then dragged kicking and screaming through the 90s before washing up in 2004. The story centers around the lives of three high school misfits who find friendship in each other. Napoleon, Pedro, and Deb have a variety of mild antagonists to deal with. These include the ‘popular’ crowd in their school, Kip – Napoleon’s older brother who spends most of his time chatting online with his internet girlfriend, and Uncle Rico – that sleazy relative who shows up unannounced and wreaks havoc in the lives of his family because he peaked in high school and is miserable that life has been nothing but a downhill slide ever since. Together, the unlikely trio of heroes form a bond that allows them to overthrow the established social order of high school politics. When we first meet Napoleon he’s the archetypal teenage loner, constantly over-exaggerating in order to impress those around him into liking him. He’s the guy that (if we’re honest about it) we all would have made fun of, laughed at, and generally avoided if he was a real person that we knew in high school, regardless of whatever social pond we were swimming in at the time. But Napoleon has a pure heart, and in his innocence he attracts the affection of Deb who accepts him for who he is. As his confidence gathers momentum he’s able to let his guard down, shrug off discouragement from his family members, stop bragging about his imaginary ninja skills, and clinch Pedro’s run for class president by channeling Jamiroquai in a public display of dance moves that brings the entire school roaring to their feet in applause.

And I’ll be completely honest with you. Even though I’ve just done my darnedest to give a brief, satisfactory summary of this movie – nothing I’ve said or could say about it will truly do it justice. It’s in a genre of its own. It completely defies all attempts at standard categorization. It laughs at professional critical analysis, and it scoffs at conventional comedic movies. If you’ve never seen it before, gather the whole family (it’s safe for all ages), make some popcorn, and let Napoleon Dynamite transport you to the most familiar-feeling parallel dimension that you’ve never been to.

I give Napoleon Dynamite 4 Coffstars , 2 Coff-steaks 🥩🥩, 3 Coff-jams , 1 pocket full of Coff-tater tots , and 1 (tamed) wild honeymoon stallion

Sneakers

Sneakers

For those of you who don’t know me, I was born at the tail end of 1978. I guess 39 years really isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but from a technological point of view, it was prehistoric times. The first video games I played were on the Atari 2600, my family didn’t own a phone that wasn’t attached to the wall until I was in middle school, and we didn’t have a cell phone until I was 18. The first computer we had (a top of the line custom desktop) could have held about 50 songs on its entire hard drive, if mp3 files existed at the time—and they didn’t. Our second PC was able to connect to the internet after a few minutes of the modem making screeching and scrunching sounds, and no one else could use the phone while someone else was online. And then things started changing. They changed really fast. And now, 20 years later, it takes only a few seconds to see what people are doing on the other side of the planet. The barriers of global communication—which at one time included things like oceans, and mountains, and long-distance fees, no longer exist. Information availability is nearly without limit.

And 26 years ago, a quaint little film called Sneakers predicted this would happen. Three years before, Phil Alden Robinson had directed Field of Dreams, which is essentially a parable about Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones building a sacred temple in the form of a baseball field. Sneakers was Robinson’s follow-up, and even though it’s basically a heist film veiled in several other genres, it’s also a parable—a parable about the power of information in the digital age. It definitely has some fantastical plot elements, but in the two and a half decades since its release, it’s proven to be remarkably prophetic in regards to some of its ideological warnings concerning information technology. As the villain of the story, played by Sir Ben Kingsley states so eloquently to his protagonist Robert Redford: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little 1s and 0s, little bits of data… there’s a war out there; a world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information—what we see and hear, how we work, what we think—it’s all about the information.

Side Note: James Earl Jones makes a cameo appearance in this movie, and he has the best lines…

But all heaviness and ideological gravitas aside, Sneakers is just a really fun movie. It reminds me a lot of Ocean’s Eleven—it has a similar feel to it. And like Ocean’s Eleven, what really makes it a great film are the characters, their uniqueness, and how well their personalities ping-pong off each other. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me break down the team dynamic for you: There’s Sydney Poitier, the ex-CIA operative who functions as the co-leader of the team along with Robert Redford. He’s often roped into verbal sparring matches with Dan Aykroyd, who plays a technical genius obsessed with conspiracy theories. The heart of the team is David Strathairn who plays a blind computer hacker named Whistler. I’m not going to tell you why he’s the heart of the team—you just have to watch it. Then there’s Carl, played by the late River Phoenix in one of his last roles—he plays… well, he plays a kid named Carl. And finally, last but not least, is Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), playing the intelligent, quick-thinking, quick-witted, token female who’s obviously just had enough with all these dudes running around getting into trouble.

Movies about teams of people saving the world are pretty common these days, but if you want to watch something different, look no further than Sneakers—a film about a group of small business entrepreneurs (without superhuman abilities, without guns, and without Denzel Washington), that end up saving the world all the same. If you’ve never had the chance to behold this forgotten treasure from 1992, it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.