08 January 2013

Meeting (and Missing) Mercy at the Movies

     Two blockbuster films came out over the winter holiday that should excite a lot of people, and especially Christians. Those two movies were, of course, The Hobbit and Les Miserables (which each broke my heart, though in different ways).
    We've long since claimed Tolkien as our own and proudly bring him out of our proverbial rolodex in any quarrel relating to the aesthetic accomplishments of Christians. Yes, we may be saddled with Left Behind and rows upon rows of Amish romances, but we also have a little series called Lord of the Rings, maybe you've heard of it?
    So Christians willingly embraced the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy when it came out around a decade ago, and have now turned to The Hobbit with similar fervor. This zeal is not entirely misplaced; there is only so much a filmmaker can do to ruin Tolkien's brilliant storytelling, and The Hobbit, unlike most big budget Hollywood films, values mercy. Or at least, it claims to. Tolkien certainly did, but whether or not Jackson upholds this is up for debate.
     There is, of course, the one defining, pinnacle moment where Bilbo chooses not to kill Gollum even when he is given the opportunity (that's not a spoiler alert, since Gollum is clearly alive in the LOTR trilogy). In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Frodo, "It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand...The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many," and this mercy, this saving of Gollum's life, does indeed turn out to mean the salvation of Middle Earth (again, not a spoiler, since the movies have been out for ten years and the books significantly longer). The moment when Bilbo lowers his sword and stares into Gollum's pitful, scared face is a powerful moment-- the only quietness and subtlety the movie offers in its mammoth 2 1/2 hour running time.
      Filmgoers are clearly hungry for mercy, judging by the way they flocked to Les Miserables, a musical adaptation of another story that Christians can proudly claim (though some don't, shying away from the prostitutes and general "dirtiness" of the story; seemingly forgetting that's what half of the Bible is about). The film clearly shows the struggle between mercy and justice as personified by Valjean and Javert. In Les Mis, as in The Hobbit, the hero spares the (admittedly morally grey) villain when he has the chance to defeat him.
     It's no wonder that we long for mercy, after years of movies like the revenge-based Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or the dark, vengeful, and seemingly endless superhero reboots we keep getting. Christians, especially, enjoy being able to watch something that illustrates God's saving mercy rather than man's revenge or even rightful, yet harsh, judgment. Non-believers do as well, judging from box-office receipts.
    Les Mis succeeds in illustrating mercy; Javert's quest for justice ends when (spoiler alert, but again, it's been around for a while, so if you haven't read the book, heard the musical, or seen one of the dozens of cinematic adaptions of the story, this one's kind of on you) he is confronted by Valjean's mercy. Unable to understand it, he commits suicide; justice self-destruct, uncomprehending in the face of mercy. Valjean, who shows mercy because he has been shown mercy (not unlike us) ends his life redeemed and freed from justice's harsh demands.
      Does The Hobbit similarly succeed in its portrayal of mercy? Well, while the scene with Gollum is powerful and worth the price of admission alone, it is at odds with the entire rest of the film (this article is a great read, which accurately sums up a lot of the problems I had with the movie). Tolkien had a very unique and even Biblical theory of warfare-- war is undesirable and horrific, but sometimes necessary and just. When it is necessary, joy can be found in it (similar to the idea of 'righteous anger'-- this explains the joy of, say, Gimli and Legolas with their Orc body count at Helm's deep).
     The Hobbit adaptation has, of course, been expanded to form a trilogy; a decision which must have been solely monetary, as the numerous additions, far from contributing to the story, sap it of any vitality it might once have had, stretching out simple scenes, adding characters, and, most egregiously of all, throwing in gratuitous battle sequences at (quite literally) every possible opportunity. Jackson clearly had a fascination with battle scenes even in the LOTR trilogy, but there, they were a part of the story and felt as if they had a purpose. Here, they seem out of place; killing for the sake of killing, taking up arms at the first excuse and glorying  even in the horrors of battle (think of the gruesomely circus-like atmosphere of the underground fight with the goblins). The glory of exacting justice swiftly and violently undermines the mercy at the heart of Tolkien's story (as well as the innocence and homeliness-- The Hobbit is, after all, a children's story; but that's a discussion for another time).
      People crave mercy, and like to see it in films, even in distorted forms. So what should Christians do with these portrayals of mercy? Be proud to own the spiritual themes in Les Mis and The Hobbit. Treasure what we can, praise God for the mercy He has shown us, and remind others of that same mercy. And while you're at it, read The Hobbit. It'll take less time than watching the movie will. And it'll be a lot better.

25 June 2012

I Am Disappoint: Pixar's Botched BRAVE

     I adore Pixar. I've grown up with Pixar. My brother and I used to dress up as Buzz and Woody. We quoted Finding Nemo obsessively for months following its release. We collected Monsters, Inc. toys. So every part of me wanted BRAVE, Pixar's newest offering, to be a huge, soaring triumph. I'm sure you've read reviews that said that BRAVE is merely acceptable, that the story is predictable and the humor childish, and unfortunately, that's all true. It doesn't have the same crossover appeal as Pixar's other movies (I watched Monsters, Inc. this afternoon and enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I watched it at age seven) or the heart. It's not only not a very good Pixar movie, it's not a very good kid's movie (and there are some seriously stinky kids' movies out there, let me tell you). 
     The heroine of BRAVE, a scottish princess named Merida, seems like Pixar's weak attempt at a Disney princess-- and indeed, she combines the worst traits of The Little Mermaid's rebellious Ariel and Mulan's titular heroine (as well as sharing her aversion to arranged marriages). The problem is, her character never really gets beyond this. She puts her own selfish desire for a "free" life above the good of the kingdom, refusing to marry one of the suitors from the other clans and putting her mother (who is also, mind you, the queen) in danger. Although in the end she makes a speech in which she comes close to apologizing for this narcissism and choosing a suitor, the crisis of any real sacrifice is quickly averted and she moves on, her character statically bratty.
      The view of mother-daughter relationships in BRAVE is also seriously concerning. Her mother is portrayed as bossy and ruthless because she-- I don't know, doesn't want weapons on the table? (Most of the movie, I was on the mother's side-- Merida needed a good spanking). However, if Merida's character remains immobile, the mother is the one who "grows" in this flick-- grows into a worse parent, that is. After Merida transforms her into (Spoiler Alert? I guess?) into a bear in a selfish attempt to "change her fate", Merida treats her like a large, dull pet, and the mother is so impressed by Merida's foraging abilities that she realizes she has been wrong to force Merida to be someone who she isn't and goes on to say that she should do "what her heart tells her to", which is probably the worst advice a mother could give to a daughter.
     BRAVE is really too uninspired to carry any seriously damaging message. There's some druid  magic and witchcraft, poorly explained, lots of crude jokes and naked bottoms the likes of which we're used to seeing from Dreamworks, not Pixar, and a whole hodgepodge of cliches such as "follow your heart" and "change your fate" and of course, "be brave", but none of them really mean anything-- they're just words that are meant to imbue the movie with heart or meaning (a purpose at which, I must say, the fail oftener than they succeed).
    The ultimate flaw of the movie, artistically and even morally, is the lack of development: it starts with Merida changing her own fate in what is, I presume and hope, meant to be an obviously selfish and repugnant way, and ends with her "fate" changing-- just the way she wanted it, with a lot of danger and inconvenience to her family and kingdom along the way. At the risk of sounding boorish, and yes, I know that this would make for a dull narrative, the truly BRAVE thing for Merida to have done would have been to marry one of the suitors, even if they didn't make butterflies tickle her tummy, you know, just for the tiny purpose of KEEPING THE KINGDOM FROM FALLING INTO WAR. But instead, she opts for a route that puts her mother, brothers, and eventually entire kingdom, in terrible danger. As it is, a more apt moniker for the movie would be SELFISH.
   I sincerely hope that Pixar's winning streak isn't over. Yes, BRAVE is predictable and crude, yes, Cars 2 wasn't good either, but Toy Story 3 was, and Up was, and the nine other movies before those were. So hopefully, this is just a slight hiccup, not the decline of a great movie studio. I'll be awaiting Monsters University most eagerly.

Also, regarding the title of this post: no, my grammar is not that terrible, it's a MEME, people. You have internets, you should know this.

06 June 2012

Leah's Musical Reveille

Yes, a reveille is "A signal sounded esp. on a bugle or drum to wake personnel in the armed forces". That really has nothing to do with this post itself, but hey, I promised, and when I promise, I deliver.
     We have all have things that we inexplicably like, without reason or defense. For me, it's things like the movie Stardust and Anne Hathaway and sunflower seeds. I couldn't explain to you why I like these things; I just do. The Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian is another of those things which I have deeply and passionately loved while heretofor being unable to articulate the reason why.
      Spiritually, they run the gamut--their lyrics range from vaguely pleasant spiritual expressions such as "Someone above has seen me do all right/ someone above is looking with a tender eye" (If She Wants Me) and "reading the Gospel to yourself is fine" (We Rule the School) to anti-religious reproaches such as "If you're feeling sinister / go up and see a minister / He'll try in vain to take away / the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever" (If You're Feeling Sinister). This, combined with the vaguely homosexual subtexts of many of their songs (frequent swapping of the pronouns "he" and "she", references to sexual orientation confusion in songs like "Expectations" and "Lord Anthony"), shows that the band has religious sympathy (the lead singer claims to be a Christian), while having no real concrete moral basis or strong belief.
     In a way, this lack of a moral compass leads to a sense of haunting searching (similar to Coldplay's mournful "Viva La Vida" or Death Cab for Cutie's "Into the Dark") that permeates many of their songs and adds an element of intense interest, even to the lighter songs that display where the band's hope is really found.  While Death Cab's Ben Gibbard finds his hope in romantic love and truly believes that such a thing exists, somewhere, Belle and Sebastian is at least self-aware enough to realize that they find theirs (its? I'm never sure with bands) in ideals, in fantasies about the way things should be. This is summed up nicely in "Wrapped Up in Books",  a song that chronicles a couple's imaginary relationship: "Our aspirations are wrapped up in books/ and our inclinations are hidden in looks". Salvation is found, not through what actually is, but through what could potentially be. Lord Anthony, "bullied at school" imagines a time when he'll be able to "leave them without a shadow of a care," but his eventual fate does not seem as ideal as he imagined -- "Tony, you're a bit of a mess...Anthony, it couldn't get worse". In "Write About Love", the dissatisfied character in the song escapes monotony through writing about an imaginary man who fits her ideals, rather than praying for a release from monotony ("Get on your skinny knees and pray/ maybe not today"). 
       So why are they worth listening to? As Christians, we know that things on this earth are not the way they are supposed to be-- we live in a fallen world, and can share with Belle and Sebastian a dissatisfaction with injustice and unpleasantness in the world around us.  But we also have a solid, concrete hope that things will one day be put right, rather than a vague wish that things could be different, that we could change the world bu writing about it. Belle and Sebastian's idealistic vision of the way the world should be is sometimes strikingly Biblical, sometimes flat-out sinful, but always interesting and enlightening. 
     Their lyrics are poetic and throught-provoking, more so than most modern songs and most modern (dare I say it...) Christian songs, which often repeat the things we've heard already over and over again in unimaginative and repetitive ways. Belle and Sebastian communicate in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and definitely not of the norm. (A note on the "aesthetically pleasing" part: Belle and Sebastian's folksy, unusual sound will not appeal to everyone. Just be warned. I've been accused of listening to "parody music"). It's not as if every one of their songs is worth listening to over and over againt-- a few of their songs deal with completely innapropriate themes and others certain foul language (however, due to their Scottish accents and lingo, it may take a while to realize exactly what a song is about!) However, it is important that we don't dismiss something out of hand just because it has some inappropriate content at times, especially when it is something as conducive to soul-searching as Belle and Sebastian's contemplative ballads.
     So take a listen. See what you think. Your inner hipster will thank you. Some of my favorites are "Piazza, New York Catcher", a song about travelling and everyday adventures), "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying" (a song about writing songs that will appeal to anyone with a literary bent), "Funny Little Frog", which is, now that I think about i,t kind of a stalker song, but like, in a cute way, ya know? 

08 May 2012

Superhero Mega Appreciation: The Avengers

     The long-anticipated star-studded ensemble superhero extravaganza The Avengers entered theaters this weekend with a...vengeance. Teehee. See what I did there. It's already breaking records; it surpassed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 for biggest opening weekend, almost recouping its production budget in the first three days it was out. That doesn't necessarily mean that much; it seems like almost every new movie that comes out nowadays breaks some new record, and Avengers is really only the second big movie out this year. However, that's still a ton of money. And is it worth it?
    Yes. Yes, it is. I am so happy to be able to say that yes, it is. It's enjoyable, action-packed, character-driven, and smart. In fact, it's prime Joss Whedon ( and I'm not just fangirling. Okay, I kind of am. When his name came up at the end of the movie, I screamed and was greeted with blank stares from the rest of the theater. Oh well, it was worth it. I cheered again when his writing credit came up). Caution: Spoiler-y-ness may follow. 
     The most important thing that Avengers gets right is the characters. In a giant cast like this, it would be easy for most of the scenes to go to one or two characters while thee rest merely supported those stars, but each member of the Avengers (and even the villain) get plenty of screen time and development. Also, Avengers manages to keep the individual tones of each previous movie when dealing with a character (an example of this would be the soundtrack; a classical ballad plays at a concert and continues through a Captain America scene, but when Iron Man comes on it changes abruptly to one of the rock songs characteristic of the first two Iron Man movies), while still establishing a new tone for the group dynamic that is totally different.
See, like this kind of group dynamic. This was the scene where Captian America chaperoned Hawkeye and Black Widow's date. 

    Avengers also had some more overtly religious symbolism than the other Marvel movies; Whedon is by no stretch a Christian, but he certainly has an interest in faith and the supernatural, which he displays even in the vaguely occultic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Religous characters show up frequently in his work (spirits/demons/priests in Buffy, faithful Shepherd Book in Firefly who is rarely shown without his Bible), so it is no surprise that Whedon is willing to explore spiritual ramifications in Avengers. One interesting example of this occurs toward the middle of the movie when Loki (the main villain in Avengers and Thor's brother from Thor) commands a crowd of people to bow to him. He says something to the effect of, "You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel," and one old man stands up and says, "Not to men like you." The implication being that we were indeed made to kneel, but not just to anyone who thinks they can command us. One other scene that surprised me in its directness occured just after Thor's debut in the movie. Captain America, thinking he is a villain, is about to go after him, when someone tells him something like, "You'll never be able to catch up with him. He's a god." The Captain responds, "There's only one God, Ma'am. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that." That line, simple and direct, got a rousing cheer from the audience in my theater, and it was heartening and surprising to see something like that in such a popular film. Black Widow's back story also had some interesting spiritual parallels-- while it's often hard to tell whether or not she is telling the truth, it seems at least clear that she has some sort of "red on her ledger" that she's desperately trying to absolve herself of. (Here's where I will display the sad truth that I am totally a complete nerd, yet I am an unsatisfactory nerd at that. I don't read comic books. So I have no idea what the back story between Black Widow and Hawkeye is.) Black Widow seems to think that the only way she can clear this from her record is through saving Hawkeye-- but Loki tells her something like, "do you think you can really make up for the thousands of deaths you've caused by saving one man?"  The Black Widow's tortured state as she tries to "justify" herself is clear...unless of course, she's lying about all that, too. One can never know with her.
Or maybe, when she says "ledger", she means "hair." That would also make sense. 
     The character development is really what sets Avengers apart from other summer popcorn flicks. None of the other movies have flopped (well...except for The Incredible Hulk), in part because they all have very strong characters and great actors. However, in Avengers, Whedon takes these characters that we are already familiar with and mixes them together, sometimes pitting them against one another and sometimes showing strong bonds between them. Each character has an individual struggle that gives them plenty of screen time: Iron Man dealing with arrogance and not wanting to play as "part of the team," Captain America seeking to re-adjust after being out of commission for 60+ years, Bruce Banner struggles with not letting the Hulk control him, Thor and Loki struggle with Loki's daddy issues, Black Widow struggles with her dark past, and Hawkeye, um...gets turned into a zombie or whatever I guess? So here's the character breakdown:
Hawkeye: I love Hawkeye to death, but he doesn't have a huge presence in this film. I mean, he's in it a lot, and he's heroic, and he has some really good scenes with the Black Widow. And his arrows are super cool. But he was one of the less compelling characters, at least on this go-around.
Plus, I thought cracking jokes during surgery was totally unprofessional.
Black Widow: was a pleasant, pleasant surprise. I don't remember her being all that memorable in Iron Man 2...I just remember sort of thinking, "Oh hey. Scar Jo. She can kill people and that's cool and whatever. Also she looks pretty which is why she's here." In Avengers, she's much more of a real presence and a real character-- from defeating a bunch of dudes while tied to a chair to squeezing key information out of Loki, she rocked. And while Black Widow's outfit is a skin-tight leather suit, I guess I can't really complain since that's basically what all the guys in this movie wear. And she never loses part of her costume during battle, she never kisses anyone, and she never gets kidnapped by the villain. So, cheers all around.
Thor: I like Thor. I think he's fantastically adorably awkward. I thought his movie could have been better, so I wasn't expecting much from him in Avengers. But I actually liked him in this way more! He has to deal with the villain being his own brother, along with the knowledge that his arrival on earth was what caused S.H.I.E.L.D. to create superweapons with the tesseract. And all the while he's so fantastically adorably awkward.
Hulk: The Hulk was amazing. Mark Ruffalo did a phenomenal job, and the character rehaul definitely worked-- Banner is likeable and compelling. There's a bit of a werewolf aspect to Hulk (which is why I've never been a huge fan. I dislike the whole werewolf mythos, since it says basically, "You are an animal and there is nothing you can do to control yourself," which is certainly interesting for a story but has some very dangerous implications), but it's definitely a pleasure to watch Banner take control of the Hulk and bring him to fight for his own ends (which is confusing since they're actually the same person but...ya know).
Of course, Joss is used to writing totally adorable werewolf-types. 
     IRON MAN AND CAPTAIN AMERICA: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Now, perhaps I'm being unfair here since the Captian is my favowite Avenger. But honestly, the dynamic between these two was so perfect. I had been wondering how it would work out when the snarky, arrogant Tony Stark encountered the earnest, serious Steve Rogers. And it's every bit as prickly as you would think it would be at first-- Stark mocks Rogers, and Rogers is disgusted by Stark. However, their interactions made for the most rewarding character development, as the Captain continually berates Iron Man for his bad attitude, and while IM (that's what I'm calling Iron Man from now on) retaliates with his trademark off-the-cuff wit, it becomes clear towards the end of the movie when {Spoiler Alert} he actually demonstrates the self-sacrifice of a hero, just as CA (that's Captain America, for those keeping track at home) encouraged him to do. Stark also realizes halfway through the movie that he is just like Loki when he says, "He wants an audience...he wants people watching...he wants monuments that reach into the sky and spell out his name..." realization dawns on Stark's face as the camera pans out to reveal the giant Stark Tower rising above New York City. This arc is completed at the close of the movie, when the camera once again pans back to show that rather than letters spelling out "STARK" on the tower, only the "A" (for Avengers!) remains. Sooooo sweeeeeet.
It's like this, but without the S, the T, the R, and the K.

    The plot really is driven by the characters, which means that it is not just another mindless action film-- although it does have some seriously fantastic action sequences! But the action sequences have a purpose, they're not just Michael Bay Random-Splosions. I was worried when I heard there were going to be aliens in it-- Indy 4, anyone--but the aliens really don't have a huge presence in the movie, and they come in at just the necessary time for a show-stopping fnale without bogging the film down.
   Joss Whedon did a great job making a film that not only meets but exceeds expectations-- and expectations on this one were huge. We can look forward to not only Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, The Avengers 2, and whatever other movies arise from this franchise, but hopefully to many more movies helmed by Whedon. And maybe. Just maybe. Another season of Firefly. (Hey, I can dream, right?)

P.S. Oh, and I guess Nick Fury was in it too. Every time he was offscreen I forgot he was a part of the movie. I guess he had to put the gazpacho on ice or whatever.

*Samuel L. Jackson Bonus Alert * *Samuel L. Jackson Bonus Alert *Samuel L. Jackson Bonus Alert*

17 April 2012

Some thoughts on Female Protagonists

   I promise that this is not merely another Hunger Games post. I realize that I've been prolifically posting on that particular subject lately, in fact, I've been bordering on fangirling (which is not something I normally do for anything other than Star Wars and Joss Whedon). The feminist movement, as I like to tell the imaginary hordes of people who want to hear what I have to say, was severely damaging to the family and society as a whole in many ways, but that being said, it really sort of had to happen.
This had to happen, too. I definitely support this.

    Please understand, I'm not supporting some sort of radical feminist movement here. I'm supporting something that God ordained from the very beginning-- that men and women are equal and both created in His image. Their roles are different, but they're equal. So yes, woot for us getting the vote and all that.Without going into too much detail, I just have to lay a little bit of that out in order for the rest of the post to follow (it's one of those fancy "sequences", like the board game Sequence. Which I never could figure out how to play. But hopefully you'll be able to follow this sequence. Anyway.) (And, also? Pictures again! I know how much you kiddos love pictures and have taken it into consideration).
    If you look at stories, you basically have two types of female protagonists: the wimps and the butch. Into the "wimps" category would fall all the Disney princesses created before 1970 (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White), Lucie Manette from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (seriously, she is the worst), and, I gather, though not, fortunately, through first-hand experience, that Bella person from those Twilight stories. The wimps don't really do much. They sit around a lot, and they faint, and they are nothing without a man. (again, reiterating, I am not arguing that there is anything wrong with marriage or the man's authority therein. I am arguing against women who are weak and/or dumb.)
I mean...she's clearly not really the proactive type.
      The butch overcompensate by acting just like men. These are all the tomboys and the hardened women-- think any police/detective on any crime show ever, Starbuck, possssibbly Mulan, since she, ya know, dressed as a dude. Not that there aren't enjoyable things about both of these types of characters, but they are both very obviously written for women-- in the first case, conforming to age old stereotypes of how women should behave, and in the second, consciously attempting to buck those same stereotypes.
You see that? That is the look of a man who is questioning his sexuality.

    And then there are women protagonists who are written as people. Of course, this is the way women should be written: not as women, but as people. And an example of this is, yes, Katniss from The Hunger Games-- a protagonist who behaves like a normal human would, not consciously basing her decisions at all times around her gender. Honestly, another example of this would be Jane Eyre, who does not conform to the standard proprietorial ways a woman should behave-- Jane is brutally honest and says exactly what is on her mind, which is one of her most intriguing qualities. E.M. Forster, despite his worldview flaws, wrote women extraordinarily well-- not ignoring their femininity, but merely including it as a part of who they are. Look at this sentence from Howard's End, wherein Margaret, his "toothy" and opinionated heroine is attempting to discern whether or not a man has feelings for her: "She put it to herself as indelicately as possible, in the hope that her brain would cry, 'Rubbish, you're a self-conscious fool!' But her brain only tingled a little and was silent." It is a sentence that rings true as the natural thing that a woman would think in such a situation; not merely because she is a woman, but because she is a woman in that situation. She needs to figure out how to deal with it. Like a regular person would.
It's obvious why Forster knew so much about women. The man was a stud.

    -- I feel I must mention this in passing before I conclude, and it is a confession which will, I fear, alienate almost everyone I know. I don't really care for Jane Austen's protagonists. I'm quite sure that Elizabeth Bennett is very charming and very forward-thinking, and I have an uncomfortably and unfortunately close kinship to Marianne Dashwood...I could just never take them seriously. No matter how shockingly impolitely they spoke, everything still seemed so confined to their miniscule societies that it was hard to feel the weight of any of it, if you know what I mean. I am confident that this lack of appreciation for Austen is a flaw on my part, as people who are far wiser than I am adore her. I just thought that her heroines merited mention, since she has written some of the most famous females in literature. Please don't hate me.
I mean...be honest...she's not exactly gonna survive the Hunger Games, ya know?

   I hope my hastily written and, in all probability, ill-thought out ideas make some sort of sense to you. But if they don't, a thousand pardons and please, feel free to tell me what you think of feminine protagonists: how ought authors to treat them? And etc. et. al.