Movie Reviews

A Monster Calls
When I read A Monster Calls the first time, thirteen years after the death of my father, I wept like a child.  Somehow, Mr. Ness captured the fear, anger, heartbreak, and hope that ebb and flow in circumstances such as this. Reading it brought a catharsis, a cleansing of tear ducts too long left unused, a purging of some unresolved feelings that maybe I grieved too much and too long, a burning away of some lingering walls I kept between my life and my loss. I was undone for day, but that was long overdue. It’s after we clear the rubble that we begin to truly rebuild.

Assassin's Creed
This had the potential to be thought-provoking. It wasn’t. In fact, I think I am giving the movie far more credit than I should. This movie wasn't made so audiences would ponder the question of free will. Assassin’s Creed is about assassins following a fairly disturbing creed so they can violently stop even more disturbing people. If that's all you are looking for, you will get your money's worth. If you are hoping for something thought-provoking or coherent, you may want to use your free will to watch something else.

Dr. Strange
I liked Dr. Strange a lot. It meets my criteria for entertainment: It was good (done with excellence); it was true (it was honest about life and morality); and it was noble (it made me want to be a better person). I sense that, like Iron Man, Dr. Strange is going to struggle with his own inner demons, and I would expect that he will be drawn toward compromise. But that's what makes a story compelling, right? Being good is hard; compromise can be compelling. Hopefully his strangeness does not refer simply to his unusual ability to wield magic; hopefully it applies to his ability to remain virtuous and good in a multiverse full of evil.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
He’s the guy you want on your side – always – because he’s going to win. He is a guy you trust, because he is always on the side of justice. He’s also a guy who is programmed for violence, and there are times the stone cold killer who lurks beneath the surface rises to the top. In Never Go Back, he snarls at the villain, “Look at me!” before he kills him. That’s more than justice. That’s vengeance. We saw hints of this in the first Jack Reacher movie - who's up for drinking blood from a boot? - but this movie makes that reality more tangible. That title draws from a quote from the antagonist who explains that guys like he and Reacher can "never go back" from their world of violence. The Reacher in this movie suggests he is right.

The Magnificent Seven
The Magnificent Seven reminds us that there is always hope. Even men who are known for doing bad can turn and do good. Even those who are afraid can regain courage. Even those who think they are destined to be trampled upon and used can find champions who will rise up. Even those who desire revenge can channel a moral failure into a righteous cause - and maybe, in the end, they will be saved from from the evil that lurks with them by those who will in turn fight for them in ways far more profound than a mere gunfight.

That's a good story. Maybe even a magnificent one.

Hell or High Water
Everything is falling apart. The desire for revenge is pushing them towards calamity.  They use and abuse innocent people. Their single-minded focus leaves a trail of violence, death, and fear. When Toby asks Tanner how he has stayed out of prison for a year, Tanner says, "It's been difficult." It's a funny line, but only because the delivery was great. Considering what we've seen Tanner do just in the few days captured on the screen, he is a profoundly bad man. Toby may once have been a good man, but he's sold his soul now. Even Marcus, who has a strong commitment to justice, can't seem to stop committing the small injustices he subjects his partner to every day.

Star Trek: Beyond
Star Trek: Beyond is a good reminder that virtue, nobility and hope resonate across worldviews. Here’s hoping this franchise continues to be easily accessible by all those who value what it true and good in the world.

Batman: The Killing Joke
I got the impression in The Killing Joke that everybody is just a tool to Batman, a means to his own ends – ends which started well but have devolved into obsession and increasing violence. As much as Batman claims to stand for law and order in the city, he is the first to break the law and disturb the order to accomplish his goals. This becomes obvious when the Joker asks Gordon what he would do to someone who broke the law. The Joker then goes on to describe himself  - but it’s clear to the viewer that he is also describing Batman. Gordon doesn’t see this until he says he says he would throw the book at him. He suddenly realizes that the very law that condemns the Joker condemns the Bat.

Captain America: Civil War
I wish Civil War had been more war and less civil. That not because I am a fan of war. I just think the stakes did not seem high enough considering the subject matter. As a friend noted, “Somebody needed to die.” In the comics, somebody did. That would have added a tone that  matched the seriousness of the topic. However, the moral dilemmas raised in the movie are important ones, and the fact that the film has left the tension hanging in the air between Cap and Stark has sparked a lively online discussion about war, liberty and security. That’s a good thing. Considering how terrorism is hitting increasingly close to home, this topic is not going away any time soon. Cap believes things don’t always have to end in violence, but Bucky’s probably right: “It always ends in a fight.”

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice grimly lays bare the idea that people (and I say 'people' not 'humans' so Superman is included) can produce any kind of worthy savior. When Jonathan Kent tells the story about saving his farm while destroying another, he highlights a very depressing but true human dilemma: there is almost always a downside to every success. When Clark saves someone, he is making a choice to let someone else perish. He’s super, and he does heroic things, but he’s not God. He can't see all possible outcomes. The scales are impossible for him to balance. He will never be worthy enough. Synder's view of superheroes borders on nihilistic, but it’s probably more honest than most of the other versions we see (except for perhaps The Watchmen). In Marvel’s universe, the heroes are sufficient to save humanity - and amuse us in the process. In DC's universe, the heroes are more like Gandhi: they are sincere and effective in their own way, but untimely the change they enact is often flawed - and they can even bring about unintended harm.

Being A Hero vs. Doing Heroic Things: Katniss, Bond, and James B. Donovan. "Several blockbuster movies this fall have presented very different views of heroism. James Bond (Spectre, 11/6), Katniss Everdeen (Mockingjay Part 2, 11/20), and James Donovan (Bridge of Spies, 10/16) all embody a version of what it means to be a hero. Are they all worth emulating? Should we make a distinction between being a hero vs. doing heroic things?"

Inside Out: "Inside Out is creative, insightful, funny, heart-wrenching and full of hope. I may or may not have teared up several times. I most certainly laughed. In the midst of my enjoyment, a few understated but important elements in the movie stood out to me."

Age of Ultron: Human Visions, Second Chances and Filled Gaps: "As with any story that involves super folks, both the best and the worst of humanity will arise. These stories are not meant to present simplistic heroes and villains. They are meant to tales of horror and hope, cautionary and encouraging in a way that helps us better understand or navigate life.  Of course, everyone who tells a story - director, singer, author - approaches it from a particular worldview. What is the problem of humanity? Where is our salvation? Do our histories define us, or can we choose who we want to be? Age of Ultron is no exception. Whedon has crafted a movie that focuses our attention on the best and worst in the world - and in us."

It Follows: "It's been getting great press from critics and fans alike for its artistic merit, and it's garnered the dubious distinction of becoming what The Daily Beast called “an STD panic nightmare.” Considering how many have noted the movie's innovation as well as its  relevance to current social issues, It Follows piqued my interest. It Follows creates a remarkably tense atmosphere through anticipation rather than gore. The artistic accolades are well deserved: David Robert Mitchell has made a truly frightening movie with a minimal amount of violence. However, I want to push back against what many are saying about the message."

Jupiter Ascending: "I found Jupiter Ascending to be strangely endearing in spite of all its inadequacies. Somewhere within the beautifully epic and entirely implausible mishmash of space opera, reincarnation, beekeeping, manga homage and dinosaur evolution, there lurks a story - or at least part of a story - that resonated with me."

The Equalizer - "In spite of its flaws, The Equalizer lingers with me. 'You do something about it, 'cause you can.' None of us have Robert's ability to fix those kind of horrible situations, but we all know of bad circumstances around us in need of redemption: women who are used up and discarded by men; children who are abandoned by parents; people who are broken, confused and without hope. All of us know of things from which we cannot - or at least should not - walk away, no matter the cost."

Dracula Untold - "The evil in Dracula Untold recovers enough to become beautiful, seductive, alluring, and even sympathetic. Sure, that’s how evil often looks in the beginning, but the longer we experience it the more we see it for what it is: horrible and broken, leading us to death instead of life. Vlad carries the legacy with him wherever he goes. Maybe this attempt at humanization was untold because there is no explanation that can justify what he has become. Sometimes, bad guys are bad."

Guardians of the Galaxy: "It's funny, surprisingly moving at time, and loaded with great special effects. It's not perfect (it's got some crude language, and the scope and severity of the violence was minimized and at times too light-hearted), but as far as summer blockbusters go, it's very good. I was certainly entertained. I was equally challenged by a thought-provoking scene near the end of the movie."

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - "Think of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a modern allegory similar to District 9. D9 used aliens and humans to tell a story about apartheid; Dawn uses apes and humans to tell a story about how fear and hate lead to war (think of the troubles in Northern Ireland, or how the Arab/Israeli conflict is escalating again as I write this). The story is clearly fiction, but the situations are all too real."

Maleficent: A Fairy Tale for out Times "The new version of Sleeping Beauty showcases something Disney has been good at for a long time: offering a story that reflect the times. Maleficent is not meant to be a prequel, sequel, or addendum to the 1950's tale of Beauty. It's a new twist on an old story that Disney had already altered from its original version. If you think Disney's earlier portrayal of Maleficent should be set in stone, you won't like this movie. If you approach it with the idea that fairy tales are a flexible vehicle for insight into the human condition, you will probably like this movie quite a bit. It's not a perfect story, but it offers a surprisingly moving narrative that intersects with real life more than you might expect."

Days of Future Past: Do Our Choices Matter?"X-Men: Days of Future Past is a story about free will and human nature. Sure, it’s many other things as well – an excellently crafted movie, an equal rights parable, a commentary on human atrocities, a discussion starter about evolution – but the latest installment in this thought-provoking franchise is perhaps the most cerebral of all."

Edge of Tomorrow/All You Need Is Kill - The original story is violent, vulgar, epic, mesmerizing, and at times strangely moving. It may be marketed to a YA audience, but it's certainly adult in its content. Both the manga and the movie versions clean it up and drains it of its power.

Vampire Academy - "Here's the hole in the heart of Vampire Academy: everyone is so consumed with avoiding the ultimate evil that they don’t see the incremental steps they are taking into the darkness."

The World's End - "As far as apocalyptic movies in 2013, The World’s End has been even more popular than This Is The End ( the most recent numbers posted at Rotten Tomatoes show an 89% critic and 77% audience approval). It's the last film in a clever, entertaining trilogy begun by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Simon Pegg is a great comic actor, and this movie highlights his talent. I really wanted to like it - and parts of it were hilarious - but I kept getting distracted by the increasing incoherence of the worldview and message."

This Is The End - "This Is The End drew quite a bit of critical and audience acclaim this past year. It received a 83% critic and 75% audience rating atRotten Tomatoes. I'm not sure why. By about thirty minutes in to the movie, I was thinking that "Please Make It End!" would have been a better title."

Ender's Game : The Importance of Being Ender - "Ender is neither hero nor villain. He is manipulated child, hardened slave, brilliant prodigy, fighter for peace, savior of our civilization and destroyer of other worlds. That's why Ender commands our attention. We long for him to rise above a legacy of unintended tragedy. If a killer of worlds can atone for his crimes, maybe a thief, addict or cheater can too.If even the tragedy of Ender's past can become the soil which nourishes a new and better life, then none of us need to give up hope. Ender's Game is not a story of ultimate salvation, but in it one can hear the echoes of a much greater song of redemption."

Joseph Finder's Paranoia - "When I saw previews for the movie version of Paranoia a couple weeks ago, I thought, 'I believe I read that book last winter. Something about a self-centered jerk who got caught in the middle of corporate espionage between even bigger self-centered jerks, and I didn't really care what happened to him or anyone else at the end.' Yep, that was the one. I am apparently an outlier: critics seemed to like the book quite a bit, and audiences lapped it up (it was a NYT best-seller; the hardcover version went through four printings). Though the trailer for the recently released movie looks good, it's getting a 3% from critics and a 39% from the audience at Rotten Tomatoes. I guess the trailer is the best part."

Elysium: Fighting for Paradise - "Though Blomkamp uses clear Christian imagery (Max's enemies pierce his side and his hands; blood flows over his fingertips as he stumbles down his own Via Dolorosa, his own way of suffering on the way to his death), Max is less a savior and more a tragic hero akin to Tolkien's Boromir : noble in the end in spite of his flaws; selfless when it really matters; ultimately committed to doing what he was made to do even if it kills him."

The Wolverine: Of Dark Roads, Monsters, and Men - "I left The Wolverine with mixed emotions (you'll see why in a moment). I ran an early version of my review past a good friend, Karl Meszaros, who has made appearances on this blog before. He knows the Marvel mythology behind Wolverine far better than I do, and he completely disagreed with my reaction to the film. Rather than rewriting my review, I have decided to post both: my response as a casual fan of the X-Men movies, and his insight as a follower of the Wolverine mythos for quite some time."

Beautiful Creatures - "The beginning of Beautiful Creatures quotes Martin Luther King Jr.'Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.' Lena has brought on a storm because of her power, but she may yet blow the darkness away as the series unfolds. As of now, the clouds don’t look like they will be going away any time soon.Beautiful Creatures does offer some light, but I’m not sure it shines brightly enough for those who need to be truly set free from the darkness that lurks inside us all."

Man of Hope and Steel - "This is the first version of Superman I've read or seen where Jonathan comes across as a deeply flawed hero - a man who loves his son so much he is willing to sacrifice not just himself but others rather than let Clark do what he was born to do. It's admirable that he cares for Clark so much; it's unfortunate that he forgot an entire world needed Superman. Clark ought to have been about his Kryptonian father's business, but his earthly father had trouble seeing beyond the safety of the farm."

Star Trek: Into (Hearts of) Darkness - "Star Trek Into Darkness seems to give a nod to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness not only in its title but in the journey through the moral murkiness that lurks in even the best of us. The book is primarily about the twilight of souls unable to see the light of morality, goodness and virtue. The movie highlights the fact that it's not the galactic space around us that is the true final frontier of undiscovered country. It's the moral space within us."

Django Unchained - "Django Unchained ended with the hope of a new life for Django and his wife. That was a welcome conclusion. But whenever people pursue revenge rather than justice, they cannot help but enter into darkness. Yes, the world is full of ethical dilemmas, but both the ends and the means matter. When a clever, talented director makes a film that inclines us to cheer for blood-splattered revenge, even the audience enters into a darkness that goes beyond the dimming of theater lights. By the time the credits rolled, the only light that shone into the midnight of moral nihilism was the light flickering from a burning mansion." 

Oblivion: Of Machines and Men - "Oblivion is a beautiful film. I'm a fan of sci-fi already; give me an alien invasion, sweeping landscapes, a shattered moon, clever plot twists and beautiful people, and yes - I will be entertained. Having said that, Oblivion ultimately failed to satisfy, and I left the theater frustrated for several different reasons."

Life of Pi: Searching for the Better Story: "The movie is stunning. The story feels like a mythological epic, and scene after scene capture a sense of its sweeping, mystical nature. I love fictional fantasy done with excellence, and I embrace truth wherever I can find it. Stories like this seek to show us beauty in the midst of chaos, life in the shadow of death, and hope in the depths of despair. For those reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed the art and narrative of Life of PiBut imagination can at times blind us to reality, and even the most compelling stories can be misleading. For those reasons, one of the differences between good and great stories is that great stories are also true. As C.S Lewis once said, 'In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.'"

Warm Bodies: Exhuming Humanity - "Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies has been a surprise recent hit. Though this zombie romance book (?) was originally written for an adult audience, the recent movie targets a YA crowd. If you are tempted to dismiss the story as yet another sign that we are staggering toward cultural annihilation, you might want to reconsider. Warm Bodies gives a sobering, concise and (I’m afraid) largely true warning about the trajectory of a humanity consumed by the worst parts of its own nature."

The Paperboy: Quagmire of Evil - "I’ve seen movies and read stories with a lot of darkness before. When done well, they simply set up the brilliance of the light. This story has a wealth of redemptive potential.  When that many people have that many dark sins, a gold mine of hope awaits. It's too bad nobody knew how dig for treasure of any kind.  I kept waiting for someone to change for the better, for someone to embrace a new kind of life, for someone to find light, life and hope. But then the credits rolled as the final scene took the movie home: Jack driving a boat out of a swamp, accompanied by the dead bodies of two people he tried to save but couldn't.  The Paperboy may have peeled back a facade of evil, but I'm not sure that what we see underneath is any different." 

Looper: Time Travel, Suicide and Sacrifice - "What if you found out that young Hitler was full of fantastic potential for good and terrible potential for evil?  Much to your surprise, he was an exceptionally gifted young man with the potential to either make or break the world.  Unfortunately, a devastating psychological and emotional blow made him eventually decide to break it. If you knew who the perpetrator was (though no crime had yet been committed), and that by killing him you could stop the future atrocities of the yet unscarred Hitler, would you be justified in killing the perpetrator who made Hitler a monster? What if you discovered you were the perpetrator? And what if the only way to stop the Holocaust was to kill yourself?Looper takes the question seriously.

Beasts of the Southern Wild - "There are stories that tap into a deep, haunting place inside where we yearn to be a part of  all that is right with the world. Beasts of the Southern Wild attempts to do this. I choose my words carefully here, because "attempts" is not the same as "accomplishes" - and yet every attempt is laudable. In struggling to write down my thoughts, I realized I needed to write two reviews: One that captures a story that moves me; the other that reflects a worldview that unsettles me.

The Mortal Instruments - "I understand the appeal of this series. Clary finds out she is not just an ordinary person; she truly is special. She discovers a reality far deeper and more serious than she imagined. In spite of not having a father, a solid father figure plays a key role in her life. And when her mother disappears, she finds a home with the Shadowmancers. She is not alone after all. For many teenagers, Clary reminds them that there is hope - one can find meaning, purpose, and a place to belong in spite of fractured families and mundane lives. But as good as the main characters are at fighting demons, they are pretty bad at fighting temptation. The first of the Shadowhunters inscribed their motto on the Mortal Cup: “The Road To Hell is Easy.”  When those meant to hunt in the shadows begin to live in those shadows, the journey has begun."

Spiderman: Superpowers and Sins - "Two scenes stood out to me. In one scene, Spider-Man stands framed in front of the American flag.  It was a great movie shot, but I wonder: what did Spider-Man stand for that mirrors the American Dream?  Arrogance?  Self-aggrandizing? Dishonesty?  Revenge? In the second scene, Aunt May says, "If there's one thing you are, it's good."  Really?  Good how? And at what, exactly?  In order for that statement to even make sense, I had to draw from the older version of Spider-Man, a hero who was kind, honest, empathetic, and sincere."

Melancholia - " Melancholia, a highly praised film from Lars Von Trier, follows the imploding lives of the characters as the earth awaits imminent destruction from the planet Melancholia. While stunningly beautiful in its cinematography, it is hauntingly hopeless in its depiction of a life without meaning."

Divergent - "In an effort to keep up with an increasingly influential entertainment culture, I recently walked into Horizon Bookstore in Traverse City and asked the manager, “What’s the next Hunger Games?” Though the HG trilogy was not ideal, there was a lot to like, especially in comparison to other recent series (I'm talking to you, Twilight). The answer? Divergent."

The Hunger Games - "Let's not kid ourselves; today’s youth know that life is grim. They already know that parents die, friends can turn on them, power can corrupt, and even the best relationships are full of tension and pain.  For many, life looks so overwhelming at times that the only thing they can do is hide for a while and wonder how they can possibly be made whole.  Maybe they are drawn to this story because it does them the honor of giving them truth. I'd much rather they read a story that takes life seriously than one that insults them with beautiful twilight lies. At least now we are in the realm of truth, and the truth of Christ has the ability to bring hope, life, and light into very dark lives indeed.

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