Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

     I know it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to finish this month talking a movie that did not win any Academy Awards on Sunday (and I didn’t expect it to), but this happened to be my favorite movie of the year. I thought “Beasts of the Southern Wild” had an incredibly unique vision, with the entire movie seeming like it came straight from the perspective of our young protagonist. And to me, that was really powerful and added so much to its story, as I’ll tell you about here.

     “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, a film festival hit last year made with a $2 million budget, is the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhan√© Wallis, who at nine years old is the youngest person nominated for an acting Academy Award). Hushpuppy lives with her father named Wink (Dwight Henry) in a bayou community supposedly outside New Orleans. Wink is supposedly suffering a heart condition, as one day he comes back home wearing a hospital gown and often has a hard time breathing. I say “supposedly” because—and this is the best part of “Beasts”—these specific details are never actually mentioned verbally in the film. As adult audiences, we can figure these details out, but as you’ll see in the film, the whole story is told from Hushpuppy’s point of view: her narration under the visuals, low camera angles similar to the height of a child, and no mention of New Orleans, heart failure, or Hurricane Katrina.

     Eventually, Katrina hits their community, otherwise known as the “Bathtub”, and most of the residents stay there despite their homes being flooded. They do their best to recover, but since the salt water has ruined a lot of their property, it becomes very hard for them to keep living there on their own. After Wink and some other men try to get rid of some of the water by dynamiting the nearby levee, the authorities come in and move the remaining residents to an emergency shelter. There, Wink undergoes surgery but does not recover from his heart troubles. Soon, Hushpuppy and the residents escape the shelter.

     As Hushpuppy tries returning home, she starts coming to terms with some of the realities that she did not understand as a little girl. On a boat, she meets a woman who may be her real mother, though we are never told whether or not she is. And once Hushpuppy and her companions return to the Bathtub, she finds her dying father and says her last goodbye to him. (This, by the way, is a powerful scene, especially considering these two actors were non-professionals.) And as Hushpuppy leads a group of people back to their neighborhood, her narration closes out the film:

HUSHPUPPY: When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right.

     Throughout the film, Hushpuppy narrates about how she is fascinated by all the details of the earth: the woods, the animals, and so much more. She tells us early on that she thinks that if just one piece of nature were to come undone, the whole universe would collapse. Intercut with these narrations are images that aren’t quite part of the story, but that illustrate her point: shots of polar ice caps crashing into the ocean, and of some mysterious animals in a stampede going through the Bathtub—eventually coming face-to-face with Hushpuppy as she herself is in the face of her father’s death.

     These techniques of filmmaking, and the story it tells, is why I really loved “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. The innocence of childhood is portrayed incredibly well and incredibly uniquely, as well as the child’s coming of age. And as far as relating this idea to faith, I could do so almost immediately. One verse that comes to mind immediately is what Jesus says about the faith of a child: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” (Matthew 19:14)

     But let’s contrast this idea with another verse that occurred to me in 1 Corinthians 13, where the apostle Paul writes about love: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (13:11) So Jesus tells us to have the faith of a child to accept Him; but Paul says we need to put away childish things.

     At first, this may sound inconsistent, but I think it is talking less about childhood and innocence and more about the difference between faith and ignorance. As followers of Christ, we need to accept His way wholeheartedly; at the same time, that means putting aside our own ways, which may mean the ignorant, perhaps even selfish things we believed as children. I think this is what “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is trying to convey. It shows a child who sees the world from her own simplistic point of view, but from that view she needs to come to terms with the more ugly parts of her world.

     And as believers in Christ, we need to be able to do that: to look into the face of our world with faith, even love, to go through it in the name of Jesus. After all, Jesus tells his disciples in John 16: “‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’” (16:33) My prayer is that you would remember that this week.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

     Continuing with our look at some of the films nominated this year for Academy Awards, I’d like to share with you my pick for the Best Picture of 2012—along with Best Director, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. “Silver Linings Playbook” will not win all those (the only likely win is for actress Jennifer Lawrence), but it deserves all those awards for being a truly uplifting film, the kind of film that the Academy has had a tendency to award the past couple years. I even thought it was better than director David O. Russell’s previous film from two years ago, “The Fighter”, which went on to win two Oscars for its supporting actors.

     “Silver Linings Playbook” introduces us to Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) being released from a mental institution for bipolar disorder. Several months before he was put there, Pat had an episode at his home where he caught his wife Nikki cheating on him and proceeded to nearly beat the man to death. Now, Pat feels good as new—or, at least, that’s what he tells his mother and father (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro, respectively)—and has found a new friend at the facility in Danny (Chris Tucker). Pat also gains enough confidence to find Nikki again and reconcile with her, even though she now has a restraining order against him.

     So Pat’s parents do not think it is a good idea for Pat to find Nikki again, as do Pat’s therapist (Anupam Kher) and several of Pat’s friends, including close friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), who eventually introduces him to his sister-in-law Tiffany (Lawrence). Tiffany, it turns out, has some mental problems of her own, as her husband recently died in a car accident and she has for some time been struggling with that loss. For this reason, Pat and Tiffany seem to hit it off pretty well, even though at first Pat is reluctant to spend time with her because he thinks she is extremely promiscuous.

     But long story short, Tiffany soon convinces Pat to join her in a local dance competition. In return, she says she will be in contact with Nikki and can help Pat get back in contact with her. So Pat agrees, the two start practicing, and eventually Tiffany gives Pat a letter from Nikki, where it reads that Nikki needs some kind of indication that Pat has changed and is ready to reconcile. So Pat and Tiffany both decide that this dance could be that opportunity.

     However, because of a series of complicated events (again, I say, go watch the movie to see all the details), Pat and Tiffany face enormous pressure to succeed in the dance competition—mostly because Pat’s father made a bet on it. And then when they go to the competition, Tiffany is shocked to find that her sister and Ronnie brought Nikki! (Tiffany previously lied to Pat and said that Nikki would be there, when Tiffany really did not communicate to Nikki at all.) But in their journey to succeed and find closure for themselves, Pat and Tiffany succeed (sort of) in the competition, Pat’s father wins the bet, and Pat realizes that returning to Nikki may not be the best thing: he and Tiffany have now fallen in love. And when Pat tells her that he realized that she wrote the letter that she said was from Nikki, he tells her in a letter of his own:

PAT: The only way to beat my crazy was by doing something even crazier. Thank you. I love you. I knew it from the moment I saw you. I'm sorry it took me so long to catch up.

     So the two end up getting together, and the Solitano family is finally able to reconcile after months and months of emotional trauma.

     I remember seeing this movie for the first time over Christmas break not entirely sure what to expect, but I came out of the theater feeling extremely uplifted. And at that time, I had no idea how personal this film was to screenwriter/director David O. Russell, whose own son struggles with a mental illness. I myself can’t say that I’ve had friends who have struggled with such intense disorders as portrayed in “Silver Linings Playbook”, but I have many friends who have struggled with something. Stress. Anxiety. Depression. Loneliness. Anger. Even self-abuse. These are all things that many students my age go through.

      So as a Christian, how do I respond to these struggles? My first reaction is to say to love them; but it’s easier to say than to do, as we all have probably learned by now. But sometimes, it’s the only thing I can do: just love on people and pray continually for them. Sometimes, I feel like the situation is out of my hands. But it is never out of God’s.

     In 1 Peter, the author writes to a church faced with a sinful world, but what Peter writes is extremely relevant to us: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (4:8) That’s a phrase in Scripture that I love reading: love covers over a multitude of sins. And I truly believe that it does. It can cover even the biggest struggles of someone who thinks they are too far-gone for God to love them. God’s love can overcome all of that. And my prayer for you today is that you would discover that love that covers sin, and that you would love others around you deeply so that they can be blessed. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Argo (2012)

     And onto another excellent movie from 2012, “Argo”. I’m not totally sure if it’s going to happen, but all the signs so far point to Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort winning Best Picture at the Oscars in a couple weeks. Which would be strange, because Affleck himself didn’t get a Best Director nomination, which definitely shocked me. But he might still win as a producer come Oscar night, and it wouldn’t surprise me. “Argo” is not my favorite movie of the year (I’ll get to that later), but it was still a very entertaining film.

     “Argo” is set during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, when militants stormed the U.S. embassy and took American hostages while six people escaped to the house of the Canadian ambassador. Members of the CIA, including Tony Mendez (Affleck), are having trouble figuring out a way to get the escapees out. But one night, Affleck has an idea after seeing a “Planet of the Apes” movie on television: to create a cover story that the escapees are Canadian filmmakers scouting a location for a science-fiction epic.

     It’s an idea that sounds so crazy, it just might work. So Mendez and his supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) find make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in Hollywood to help them make the cover story as credible as they can, finding an unmade script and creating everything for it: costumes, storyboards, a crew, everything. There can’t be any doubt in the Iranians’ heads when the escapees are being snuck out.

     When Mendez and his “crew” arrive in Iran, he has a hard time getting the escapees to trust him. As he gives them the information they need to know about what the film is and what their roles (and new names) should be, a few of them seriously doubt the plan will work. However, they eventually are on board with the cover story and are ready to escape back to the United States.

     However, one night, Mendez gets a call from O’Donnell saying that the cover story has been cancelled and the military is planning its own rescue. But Mendez is committed to the cover story and getting the Americans out that way, and so at the last minute, O’Donnell reauthorizes their plane tickets out of the country, and they arrive at the airport ready to explain their “film” to security. When security has doubts, they are given the phone number of the film’s Hollywood studio. They call the number, and Chambers answers it at the last second.

     So the Americans escape, and for the hostages’ protection, all U.S. involvement is kept secret—the media declares it was a Canadian mission, led by the ambassador who escaped at the same time with his wife. And until 1997, the “Canadian Caper”, as it is now known, was kept a secret, along with Mendez receiving an award from the CIA. The rest of the hostages were eventually released in 1981.

     “Argo” has been hailed as many things: suspenseful, darkly comic, a tribute to Hollywood, and a great political thriller. But it has also received a heavy amount of criticism for taking a lot of dramatic license. In reality, a lot of things that we see portrayed in the movie didn’t happen. The hostage situation was real; the Canadian and American joint effort was real; even the fake movie cover story was (ironically) real. But Lester Siegel didn’t have a role in the rescue; the Canadian government played a bigger part in the rescue than the CIA; and there was no last-minute suspense as to whether or not the Americans would be able to leave.

     But as I thought about it a little, I think maybe this blurred line between fiction and reality is the main theme of the movie itself—the actual movie, not the fake one. The whole point of the mission is that Tony Mendez is making up a lie to save the lives of these six Americans. He’s putting his own life at stake creating this hoax. So is he doing right? Or is he doing wrong? This can actually be a strong debate between sides, whether or not lying to protect is the right thing to do.

     Maybe it just depends on the situation. You can read many stories in the book of Genesis about Abraham lied to his leaders and said his wife was actually his sister, so that her life would be spared. In the book of Joshua, even Rahab the prostitute lies to protect the lives of Israelites because she fears their God. And even outside the Bible, we can read many stories of people during World War Two who lied to the Germans to protect the lives of hidden Jews, and there are many other stories about different points in history where people lied to protect other people.

     Unfortunately, this is an issue that the Bible does not address head-on. However, in 1 John 3, it is written: “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” (3:19-22) In situations such as these, the only thing we can do for sure is submit ourselves to the Lord. And that is my prayer for you today.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lincoln (2012)

     So for the month of February, I’m doing something that I should have thought of two years ago: as we approach the Academy Awards on February 24, I’m going to write about a few movies that I think will (or should) get a few nods come Oscar night. I didn’t see a whole lot of movies last year, at least not compared to 2011, but I saw enough good ones that I’d like to write about. With that said, let’s look at the first movie of the month (and probably the winner of the Best Actor award), “Lincoln”, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring a terrific ensemble cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis as the title character.

     I’m going to try in this article to spare you every single political detail, because for one thing, it would take a long time to explain, and for another thing, it would take even longer to fully understand. But the film, rather than a biopic on Abraham Lincoln’s life as a whole, focuses specifically on his presidency in January 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which would abolish slavery, is about to be passed. Lincoln believes that the amendment must be passed before the end of the month so that at the end of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation cannot be discarded and the amendment rejected by the slave states.

     In order to do this, Lincoln has to get the assurance of all the Republicans, something he needs party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to support him on. In return, Blair insists on immediately negotiating peace with the Confederate government. Meanwhile, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) work on securing the Democratic votes. They do this by targeting the “lame-duck” Democrats—those who will be out of Congress after the new Congress comes in—and offering them new positions while asking for their support.

     Long story short, the end of January arrives, after Thaddeus Stevens (the great Tommy Lee Jones) has changed his view of racial equality slightly to help the amendment’s passage, and after a rumor circulates that the amendment may be proposed but then is dismissed. The amendment is then voted on, passing by only a two-vote margin. Lincoln then meets with the Confederates and tells them the amendment has been passed and utters the line made immortal by the movie trailers: “Shall we stop this bleeding?” About two months later, Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) receives Robert E. Lee’s surrender, ending the war. The film ends, after Lincoln has been pronounced dead after his assassination, with a flashback to Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

      I apologize for generalizing the movie’s plot so much, but trust me, this screenplay (which is brilliant, in my opinion) has a ton of information in it that would take way too long to put in this article. Again, that should give you incentive to see the movie yourself! Anyway, a lot of what I wrote about focuses on the political side. But in the film, we see Lincoln in his personal life as well: as he and his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) struggle through their relationship, reminiscing the loss of their firstborn years ago, as Lincoln and his son Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) debate his joining the army and fighting in the war himself, and as Lincoln himself ponders his legacy and the repercussions of this decision to abolish slavery.

     There’s a scene near the middle of the movie where Lincoln is speaking to two young representatives, one of whom studied science (I think, I honestly can’t remember), and Lincoln talks to him about the findings of Euclid, the Greek mathematician:

LINCOLN: Euclid's first common notion is this: things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other. That's a rule of mathematical reasoning, and it’s true because it works—has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is self-evident. You see, there it is, even in that two-thousand-year-old book of mechanical law, it is the self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.

     There are a few scenes like this, where Lincoln monologues (as opposed to “drones on and on”) about equality, and this one in particular almost moved me to tears. In a year where our president is an African-American sworn in to a second term on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2013, it is amazing to see not only where the United States has come but also what it is still headed towards. This could be good, but it could also mean a lot of hardship. After all, just because Lincoln passed the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t mean racial equality started immediately—far from it!

     But as a follower of Christ, I am called to love everything and everyone around me, regardless of race, gender, age, or even religious beliefs. But especially for the others around me who follow Christ, I am called to put aside differences and love them as God’s beloved children. The apostle Paul writes about this in Galatians 3: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:26-28)

     What an important truth to be reminded of by one of the most important movies of 2012. My prayer for you is that you will remember to see all of those around you as children of God, and that you and I would love them regardless of who or what they might be to the world.