Category Archives: Minor Spoilers

Sort of a movie review, but with more reflection and tangents. The stories we engage shape us.

My #1 Animated Feature on Netflix is…

Last week’s post ended with a cliff hanger of sorts.  One Redditor very compassionately commented “Coming next week?  F*ck you.”  People are sweet.  In all honesty, I had originally planned to include #1, but the post was becoming too large.  And I decided my last post deserved it’s own post.  So what could possibly take my number one spot over Fantasia?

1. BoJack Horseman

Am I serious?  Yessir!  Dear readers, I beg you to hear me out.  The show follows 90s sitcom star, BoJack Horseman.  But, the 90’s are gone and it is 2014.  The first episode introduces us to a BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) who spends his morning drinking booze in front of the television, watching reruns of his old show, and struggling to write the first chapter of his biography. He has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with his agent, a fluffy pink cat named Princess Caroline. A homeless young man named Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul) is the eternal optimist who sleeps on BoJack’s couch.  And Diane is a ghost writer who is quickly burdened with finishing the aforementioned biography.  BoJack is a man (or rather, a horse) in search of wholeness in the wake of broken relationships with producers, actors, old friends, and so on.  It is evident in the first episode just how bankrupt BoJack’s selfishness has made him, and the depths he will dive into denial to evade that reality.

BoJack Horseman stands out among similar animated shows: it’s humor is similar to Archer. While shows with crude humor are a dime-a-dozen, and some of them may have a continuing narrative from season to season, Bojack is the only one in which the characters develop. These characters all have their own history and struggles, all have their dysfunctional tendencies in relationships, and they are all living in the riches of Hollywood (Hollywoo..?) trying to comprehend the emptiness that lurks inside themselves. Den of the Geek and Vox each wrote articles back in 2015 drawing strong comparisons between BoJack Horseman and AMC’s Mad Men. And having watched both in their entirety, I couldn’t agree more. Yet, while thematically similar, the despair of BoJack lies not in a secretive, polished life a la Don Draper, but in the comedic cynicism that makes one both laugh and cry. I laugh because it is so absurd to hear it voiced out loud by a drunk BoJack during a 9am interview on PBS, where he asks if it’s okay that he parked in a handicapped spot. I cry because it is makes BoJack’s pain so visceral and transparent even when he is not honest with himself about it.

But does this show even need animation? Is it enhanced at all by not being live-action? It’s not full of costly action like Archer or science fiction tropes like Futurama. It doesn’t display the exuberant insanity of Animaniacs or the epic washes of color and motion of Fantasia. What does such a medium bring to BoJack Horseman?

The opening scene of the series is the theme and title to BoJack’s sitcom, Horsin’ Around in which a horse in ugly sweaters adopts three kids and raises them. It has all the hallmarks of an early 90s sitcom, and the animation and color palette feels oddly reminiscent of cartoons from that period. Characters have soft, curved features not dissimilar from shows like Care Bears, Doug, or even Rugrats. Everything visual about the show from the outset invites the viewer into 90s nostalgia, which is so culturally pervasive today. But no sooner does our introduction to Horsin’ Around appear then we are introduced to 21st century BoJack and all his cynicism and longing for his fame. However, the color palette and animation style never changes. BoJack and his cohorts are still in a world of pastels and talking animals, yet unable to see that the world they inhabit has many of the same woes and joys as the foregone 90s.

The animation of BoJack takes us further into our own 90s nostalgia, and like BoJack we are wondering what this new era means for us. The romanticized (perhaps exaggerated) safety and security of the 90s are gone, yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Full House, and even The X-Files have been given reboots. BoJack Horseman visually looks right a home next to such beloved 90s shows, as well as their reboots. The brilliance of BoJack is that it beckons us to reflect on how desperate we are to return to a period nearly thirty years in the past. And the writers know it. In the second season, a television producer (a penguin who formerly worked for Penguin Publishing) expresses that “Everything feels fresh if you just forget the last thirty years ever happened” (s2e2).

Animals are regular characters, and they live very human lives alongside humans. They work jobs, pay taxes, and go on dates–nearly always outside their species. The animal characters are painted like the animal-themed cartoons of our youth, only they are adults bearing scowls and grimaces. It is almost as if the fun animals we loved as children have grown up with us, and are now cynics just trying to get by. In BoJack Horseman, humans and animals alike are from a variety of generations: Baby Boomers and WWII folks to Gen-X, Millennials, and beyond. And each generational incarnation is in the search for purpose and joy in an uncertain world.

Yet the more flashbacks we see, the more it becomes evident that BoJack and friends were the same cynics, optimists, and everything in between, long before 2014. BoJack slowly comes to this painful realization by the end of season 1 (SPOILER AHEAD!). Speaking to Diane, he pleads…

“I mean am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? I mean it’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late? Diane, I need you to tell me it’s not too late…I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good. Diane? Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.” (s1e11).

BoJack Horseman is a show that is not only about longing for the bright and vivid colors of the past and stumbling around to find such vibrancy in our own age. It is a reminder that seasons of disorientation and confusion expose us, and invite us to heal.
Season 4 aires September 8.

Did I miss any gems on Netflix?  Think I couldn’t be more wrong?  Please comment and let me know!

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My Top 5 Animated Picks on Netflix

Hello everyone! This past weekend I had the joy of watching the pilot episode of Disney’s reboot of Ducktales with my wife. If you haven’t seen the new Ducktales pilot, you can watch it on YouTube. The show is a wonderfully fresh take on this late 80’s treasure. Huey, Dewy and Louie all have distinct personalities (enhanced by the impeccable voice talents of Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and Bobby Moynihan). And perhaps the greatest change is Scrooge McDuck’s role as a retired adventurer who is drawn back into the game by the spirits of his great-nephews. Former ‘Doctor Who’ David Tennant carries Scrooge in a direction pleasantly removed from the 1987 rendition, whose desire for treasure just happens to drag the Duck triplets along for the ride. Instead, Scrooge is a seasoned adventurer inspired by the youth of nephews to strike back out in the great unknown. The voice acting is superb, the writing is fast and witty without sacrificing the plot, and the animation embodies it all in with smooth transitions and an eye-catching color palette. It’s a great start to what will hopefully continue to be an enjoyable adventure series.

I love animation. As a medium, it allows for the storyteller’s imagination to be unleashed without the budget/technological constraints of a live action production. Despite the pervasiveness of CGI/3D shows and films like Zootopia, the 2D landscape still holds the greatest flexibility for the absurdity that cartoons have thrived on since Looney Tunes. And cartoons have also shown a high level of versatility for an array of art styles and narratives. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a brief list of what I consider to be the cream of the crop of animation on Netflix. I’m only including 2D animation, as well as strictly Western shows (meaning no anime… this time). Below are my Top 5 Tastes of Animation on Netflix!

5. Futurama

In spring of 1999, Matt Groening (The Simpsons creator) and David X. Cohen introduced the television viewing public to the world of the 31st century in the illustrious and bustling city of New New York. The show primarily follows the exploits and adventures of Philip J. Fry (referred to as Fry), a pizza delivery boy who is accidentally cryogenically frozen at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the year 1999. Fry then finds himself in a future that no one ever could have predicted. Cars fly, aliens, robots, and humans co-mingle in relative peace, and faster-than-light travel has been discovered through burning dark matter (which is conveniently left in the litter box by adorable house pets called niblonians). And Fry quickly becomes a delivery boy of the future for Planet Express, accompanied by the one-eyed ship captain Leela, and the robot Bender.

As science fiction and fantasy nerd, Futurama had my attention for four seasons which consistently delivered memorable homages and subtle jokes that were written for nerds by nerds. The crew of the Planet Express ship turn out to have been the source of the Roswell landing in 1947 (this episode, “Roswell the Ends Well” was the season premier of season 4, and won an Emmy in 2002!). In another episode, Fry learns that Star Trek fandom has evolved into a banned religious cult and all evidence of the series has been destroyed. As a show with such a plethora of references , allusions, and whole episodes that are spins on classic sci-fi and fantasy, animation was the only way to capture such a vast love-letter to nerd favorites throughout the past century. Unfortunately, the show was canceled by Fox after 4 seasons, to be followed by 4 movies and subsequent seasons that were produced and aired on Comedy Central. This later material tended to be more topical (often related to current events) in its humor, and the writing suffered because the change in networks (as well as being written several years later) meant that the crude humor that was subtle and witty to avoid censors was replaced with more grotesque, explicit jokes that didn’t try to hide their intent. But if you’re a nerd, the first four seasons of this animated space adventure are for you.

4. Archer

I hesitated including this show because the humor is far from wholesome and family-friendly. I stopped watching Archer for a couple years after I found joke to be in extremely poor taste. Yet, I came back. The show follows a privatized, international spy agency whose staff is composed of insanely dysfunctional field agents and administrative folks. While many spy stories focus on the hero or heroes completing missions, this unhinged cartoon wraps the missions in administrative red tape, vindictive interpersonal dynamics, and pathological chaos.

Why do I include Archer on my list? Because the animation has a unique pseudo-realistic style. Unlike most cartoons, the caricature is visible in the drawing of the characters themselves, Archer‘s cast at first glance do not look humorous at all. They appear rather plain and boring. Yet the writing embraces the style, delivering the majority of its jokes with a deadpan seriousness that is both gut-wrenchingly sarcastic at worst and deliciously awkward at best. Not only that, as soon as the laughter starts to subside the screen often explodes (perhaps literally) with some well choreographed actions sequences. Archer delivers on humor and action, utilizing all it’s animation style has to offer in doing so. If your children are in bed, take a chance on Archer‘s pilot episode. You’ll either laugh until you cry, or you’ll think much less of me for suggesting it.

4. Animaniacs

In the late 80s and early 90s, Warner Bros Animation was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Saturday mornings were full of the best the studio had produced since Looney Tunes. Airing on Fox Kids in 1993, the hijinks and antics of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister!), and their accompanying cast brought insanity that surpassed that of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The show was a half-hour sketch comedy that didn’t hold back. The animation captures every hyperbolic facial expression and exaggerated bodily stunt, including those performed by frequent, animated celebrity “cameos.” Animaniacs features sketches of historical events such as Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel (with some unrequested help from the Warners) and in another they inspire Einsteins paradigm-shifting formula. Musical numbers such as Yakko naming each country on the planet or learning multiplication are even educational. Anyone watching cartoons in the 90s remembers other notable characters like Pinky and the Brain (who eventually got a spin off show) and the ‘Good Feathers’ (a running parody of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with pigeons), and more.

This show is pure, unadulterated madness and the animation keeps up with it all, as did my ADD. The 90s color palette and hand-drawn animation holds up even two decades later, and the timeless humor still hits home. Animaniacs remains the best of the Warner Bros Animation renaissance. And with all 99 episodes on Netflix, there is a plethora of sketches to enjoy.

2. Fantasia

In 1940, Walt Disney produced his third animated feature, Fantasia. While I genuinely hope that this film needs no introduction, it does merit a brief overview. Fantasia consists of eight animated segments which are set to eight pieces of classical music. Each segment contains its own music-inspired narrative, ranging from the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, to centaurs and cupids having their fun spoiled by Greek gods, to the Devil summoning the restless dead for night of chaotic revelry. Were I composing such a list in 1940, each segment could count as a separate representation of animation’s versatility. Originally inspired by Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies in the late 1920s, Fantasia is what happens when imaginations enthralled with the majesty of music are captured in colored ink and on screen. The image of Mickey Mouse sporting a red robe and blue hat comes from the segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and is to this day his most iconic rendition.

My favorite piece (or at least a close second to the film’s final “Night on Bald Mountain”) may be the very first segment that opens the film. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” opens with the live-action Philadelphia Orchestra playing on stage before slowly being consumed by vibrant, moving colors which begin to take on form and shape. This opening is a Creation story of sorts as the music slowly speaks a new world into existence.

If you have never watched Fantasia, or haven’t in years, take the time to enjoy the transcendent sounds of some of histories best musical pieces set to some of the most impressive animation of both its day and our day.

 

And Number 5 is…

 

Coming next week!

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Do Heroes Fight Skybeams? (Accidental Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming)

Last week I shared some thoughts on the latest installment of the DCEU, Wonder Woman. I tried to stay focused on that film, but found myself floundering around with broader thoughts concerning superheroes in cinema. A friend and I were discussing Wonder Woman and he suggested that (spoiler ahead!) the scene of Diana courageously crossing No Man’s Land was the most heroic moment in a superhero movie since Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was willing to remain maskless in front of dozen of onlookers in order to save their train car from disaster.

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhRZB-nqOU

In light of our conversation, I have been pondering this question: When was the last time a key moment in a superhero film revolved around the hero saving someone in an act of heroism? I’m not asking about pieces of dialogue where characters plan to evacuate bystanders or brief clips of people being pulled from danger. I’m asking about scenes that portray the heroism of the character, scenes that display courage or sacrifice.

Frankly, I can’t think of any such scenes that have occurred in any recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Many of those films revolve around some larger conspiracy or larger-than-life foe. Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, while MCU high points, are more concerned with internal conflicts within the superhuman community. Would it be so bad to see The Vision get a cat out of a tree (which could be both endearing and hilarious!) or watch Bruce Banner serve in a local free clinic as he steps back from the life of an Avenger? Batman hasn’t stopped a mugger since Batman Begins in 2005. Say what you will about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.  Brandon Routh’s Kal-El is in the business of helping people.

Why have we as the audience traded heroism for the sky beams? It appears that studios believe we desire for higher powers like the Avengers or Justice League to confront insurmountable alien forces rather than reflect what courage, conviction, and compassion look like in the streets. The Avengers team rarely interacts with regular civilians in any substantial fashion.  Instead, foes and threats remain abstract to such an extent that they’re not even allegorical or symbolic for real world conflicts and tragedies.

I thought this post would largely be about my disappointment over this trend in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, over the weekend I saw Spiderman: Homecoming. (Surprise Minor Spoilers!) If you saw Captain America: Civil War, you know that that was Spidey’s first appearance in the MCU. This next MCU installment follows Peter Parker as he fights street crime in the snazzy Stark-spider suit given to him in Civil War. He desires desperately to be an Avenger and to take his fight beyond the streets of New York City (and mostly Queens). The film’s big baddy, played by Michael Keaton, who makes his money selling alien technology left over from the wreckage of the alien attack on NYC (in the first Avengers film). Keaton plays the Spidey villain, Vulture. I could write a post just on Vulture and his relationship with Spider-Man throughout the film It’s fascinating.

As I mentioned, Spider-Man wants to be an Avenger. He spends his after school time at his “Stark internship,” where he saves cats, helps old ladies, and thwarts bicycle thieves (sorta). At the end of each day, he leaves a voice message for Happy Hogan (so cool to see Jon Favreau again) which recaps all his activities and asking when he can speak with Tony Stark again.

Yet, by the film’s conclusion (spoilers) Peter Parker decides to remain “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” The events of the film and the parallels between Vulture and Spidey convince Parker that he is needed in the neighborhood. This is in stark contrast to whatever larger-than-life conflict the Avengers are wrapped up in. Although Spider-Man will enter cosmic-grade warfare in Avengers: Infinity War, for the moment Spider-Man chooses to be the local hero. While giving an elderly woman directions and being awarded with a churro isn’t exactly the action of blockbuster cinema, there is a groundedness to this hero that much of the MCU and DCEU lack. Spider-Man’s The Vulture and Wonder Woman‘s Ares are foes that embody familiar realities. The Vulture is a villain born out of economic hardship.  Ares incites the chaos of war.  Both economic hardship and pervasive war are the subject of daily news headlines. Whether it be the Chitauri of The Avengers, or Ultron in its sequel (not to mention whatever Lex Luthor is doing in Batman v Superman), there is little to nothing these threats that make our heart ache for justice. By the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was even aching for justice and mercy for Keaton’s Vulture.

Why do our superhero movies so regularly lack heroism, compassion, and a human connection? Wonder Woman’s exposed sprint to draw enemy fire in No Man’s Land is an act that inspires the enlisted soldiers to storm enemy lines. Tom Holland’s Spidey is a beat cop of sorts, who also performs even the most menial of favors. How do our movies define the word “hero?” Is the servant leader such a far-gone concept in our popular culture that our heroes can only be known as they fight large, structural oppression? Not only that, these structural oppressions in the MCU are a conspiracy of some hidden evil, and make light of the structural oppression that does exist.

Perhaps Tony Stark’s admonishment to Peter Parker “to stay close to the ground” reflects his own regret at not focusing his justice at the grass roots (in light of the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). While such a pivot would be fascinating and likely welcomed by film goers in the MCU, a conflict on the scale that is promised by Avengers: Infinity War brings little promise of that.

What kind of heroes do we desire? If we want to define heroes strictly in a mythological sense, god-like beings alone fit the bill. But if we want heroes that truly inspire us to live for others, then our heroes must defined by actions of selflessness and mercy. So far Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are the heroes that do just that.

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Wonder Woman: The Hero We Deserve (Minor Spoilers)

I have always been a fan of DC Comics. The pantheon of DC heroes is simply iconic. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have largely defined everything we expect in superheroes. DC is still going strong in the DC: Rebirth titles, which I wrote on here. Decades ago, these heroes set the bar. So imagine my disappointment when the DCEU, was turning into a total mess of a cinematic universe. I, for one, did not despise Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as much as many audiences and critics. There was plenty I enjoyed about both films. Yet, it became apparent that the masterminds behind the DCEU did not understand what these iconic characters were truly about. The comicbook nerd in me could explain away the elements that seemed to betray the nature of these characters. I could buy a Kal-El who recently turned superhero being neglectful of human life while fighting Zod then snapping his neck in a fit of rage. I considered this to be a great moment for Supes to make his trademark commitment to protect all life. And I was intrigued by the idea of a Batman so devastated by the murder of Robin and so jaded after years of crime fighting that he was less discriminate in his preservation of life and his pledge to not use firearms. Such a dichotomy would have made for a fascinating dynamic between a young Superman and a seasoned Batman. But instead we got this.   And director Zack Snyder was adamant that his revisioning of the iconic heroes was his final intention. It seemed the DCEU would only ever offer us brooding, angsty, negligent superheroes who are so caught up in their own depression that they play fast and loose with human life.

But low and behold! One hero has entered the DCEU with the conviction and uncompromising virtue we comicbook nerds expect from DC Comics. Here are some Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman!

Much has been written about the role of gender in Wonder Woman and the hopes that this film will encourage studios to tap into the treasure trove of female superheroes (superheroines?). These reviews are well worth the read. I have high hopes for how Joss Whedon, who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will handle the character of Batgirl, and I am curious about the portrayal of Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey/Phoenix in the next installment in the X-Men film franchise. But the gender study of Wonder Woman and the future of female superheroes has been discussed at length by others. What this film brings to the table is something that has been lost in the world of comicbook movie franchises: a hero with conviction, compassion, and idealism.

The film begins with Princess Diana growing up on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. Her mother, Hippolyta, tells her how Ares, the God of War, rebelled against Zeus and incited war amongst an otherwise peaceful humanity. It is the purpose of the Amazons to defeat Ares should he appear again, and, to that end, on Themyscira resides the weapon “the Godkiller.”

The plot thickens when the English spy, Steve Trevor, crashes onto Themyscira while fleeing German ships, and brings the reality of World War I to Diana’s attention. The unprecedented chaos and the moral ambiguity of the first World War stands in stark contrast to the idealistic paradise of Diana’s homeland, The Princess of the Amazons is adamant that the God of War has returned, and that it is her duty defeat him and return peace to humanity. The rest of the film follows Diana as she, with a ragtag squad of soldiers, penetrates the Western Front in search of General Ludendorff (a real historical figure) who she is convinced is actually Ares.

Spoiler Alert: Diana does succeed in killing Ludendorff. However, it is immediately evident that her understanding of war, humanity, and Ares himself is incomplete. I’ll let you find out who is actually Ares in this film. What is important is that Diana quickly learns how integrated good and evil are within human persons. In light of this, Diana must nuance her convictions and discover her role amidst the chaos and joy of human existence.

The element of Wonder Woman that I find the most well crafted is Diana’s integration into early 20th century western Europe. Once she and Steve Trevor are alone on the boat sailing away from Themyscira, she begins learning about this mysterious new world in a fish-out-of-water style of story. Yet the brilliance of Allan Heinberg’s screenplay, Patty Jenkins’ direction, and Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana, is that Diana’s convictions about justice, compassion, and the need to defeat Ares, never waver. While she may wear the clothing of the period and learn small pieces of etiquette, Diana remains uncompromising in who she is and what she believes is her mission. The film’s climax does little to undermine her core commitments to justice –which is a far cry from Snyder’s murderous Batman. Rather, she is forced to understand her convictions in a new light as she experiences the epiphany that the evils of the world are enmeshed in the human experience and not the machinations of one deific figure. These new revelations do not change Diana’s character, but call her into a deeper understanding of the principles she learned in her youth. What makes Diana heroic at the beginning remains what makes her heroic at the end. In fact, her powers are very much secondary to her convictions which is more than I can say for Superman in Man of Steel.

Wonder Woman stands out among superhero films because Diana’s heroism clearly inspires heroism in others throughout. This is most apparent when the troops push across No Man’s Land, following her fearless drawing of enemy fire, breaking the stalemate between the English and German forces. Unlike Man of Steel‘s assertion that the House of El crest (the iconic “S” emblazoned shield) means hope, or Bruce Wayne’s verbal desire for Batman to “become a symbol,” in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Wonder Woman does not require such verbal articulation because her actions and countenance convey exactly these things.

I have more to say on superheroes. But that is for next week. In the mean time, go see Wonder Woman. 

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Silence in the Theaters… And in the Pews: Minor Spoilers

In honor of the 89th Academy Awards, let’s chat about movies.

Last week, I wrote a pseudo-syllabus for my series Imagination for Resistance. While I have this week classified as Minor Spoilers, I also hope this will be something more than a film review. Several weeks ago I saw Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, which was based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. The film, first announced by Scorsese in 2007, has been the director’s aspiration since he first read the book decades ago. A film adaptation from one of the most renowned filmmakers of our time of a novel about the persecution of Christians in feudal Japan, featuring a talented cast including Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield, should be the makings of a cinematic success.

Certainly Christians alone should have turn out in the greatest droves since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which reflected the director’s tendency towards graphic violence more than it perpetuated the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet the Christians in the U.S. were the ones who brought the silence. With a budget of over $40 million, Silence was a bust at the box office where it only grossed just shy of $6 million over the course of its limited release. So do Christians just not go to the movies?

If the release of a film like God is Not Dead is any indication, Christians will turn out to certain faith-oriented films. God is Not Dead grossed over $60 million! What’s happening here? Why did Christians not buy tickets for a film about the struggle of missionaries in feudal Japan, but seemed to pack theaters to watch a college freshman have a philosophical throw-down with the actor who is most famous for playing a B-rated Hercules?

Tyler Huckabee wrote an insightful article for The Washington Post concerning the irony (dare I say tragedy?) of conservative evangelicals insisting that Hollywood ignores them, while evidently ignoring a film like Silence.

However, my hope is to go beyond yet another sign of the futility of this secular-evangelical culture war.

My friends, Christians and non-Christians alike, I am convinced that this is a symptom of a far greater spiritual condition. Christians in the USA have spoken with their dollars, and they have shown the world of cinema that they do not want to engage with the complexities, ambiguities, and downright painful agonies of reality, let alone faith. God is Not Dead equates a spirited philosophical debate between a smug college professor and a faith-minded student with enduring persecution. U.S. Christians would rather watch that film than be immersed into a cinematic world that forces them to witness real persecution.

In doing so, we (as a church) ignore the reality of the cost of following Christ. Not only that, but we functionally refuse to engage with the very questions that ache in the secular world around us. Silence became so entrenched in Scorsese’s mind and imagination that the director of films such as Gangs of New York and Goodfellas struggled to adapt it to the big screen for over 25 years. Why did we not rush to the box office, desiring to grasp whatever was in this novel written by a Japanese Roman Catholic?

I think we have lost touch with the mystery of faith. When faced with the ever-present questions “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “If God is good, how can evil be permitted to exist?” our answers have become pithy idioms and bumpersticker slogans. They have become no more than cheap words that grate like sandpaper on the wounds of parents who slowly watch their child die of leukemia, or like gasoline on the fiery anger of a boy whose father was killed by a drunk driver.

When we ignore a film like Silence, we ignore the human experience of living and breathing, of merely existing in a hurting world. We ignore the very questions that an aching world is asking.

At the start of the film’s second act, Andrew Garfield’s character is writing to a priest back in Portugal about the torture he has watched the Japanese Christians endure in Christ’s name. He hears their prayers, their songs, and the gasps of agony. Concerning whether or not God hears them, he writes “You’ll say He heard their prayers, but did He hear their screams?”

Do we hear their screams? Can we hear our own screams clawing out of our souls for answers? Are we so afraid of mystery or of suffering that we dare not go see a film portraying the agony and crisis of faith in the face of pain and persecution?

Can we hear the screams within our own sacred text?

“Why have you forgotten us completely? 
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us, 
and are angry with us beyond measure.”
-Lamentations 5:20-22 (NRSV)
“Go on, pray. But pray with your eyes open.” Ft. Ferriera (as played by Liam Neeson).

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Advent(ure) Thoughts/Minor Spoilers: The Peace of Dr. Strange

I know I am several weeks behind the film critics’ reviews on this one, but this past week I finally saw the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… Dr. Strange. And it was good; easily one of my favorite films in the MCU, besides Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yes, this post running double duty as… Advent(ure) Thoughts/ Minor Spoilers!

Dr. Stephen Strange is one of the world’s most talented neurosurgeons, and he knows it. The esteemed doctor lives the life of a New York City socialite, while having the privilege to pick and choose which patients to operate on. The result is that Dr. Strange has a perfect record because he never takes on patients that he believes he can’t successfully stitch up. Most importantly, the man cherishes his hands. His hands are what have made him the legendary surgeon we are introduced to in the film. But, when a car accident, brought about by his own hubris, results in severe, irreversible nerve damage to his hands, the reality sets in that he will never be able to perform surgery again. Strange exhausts every experimental treatment he can find. When he is unable to requisition the funds for these treatments, Strange embarks on a mystical journey to Nepal in search of an ancient miracle cure. Instead, he finds himself caught on a journey into deep mysticism, multiple realities, and immersed a war that threatens an entire multi-verse. Cool, trippy stuff.

Strange’s hands are the tools of his profession, the vessel of his prestige, and the fount of his pride. Once they are damaged, his whole life is thrown into uncertainty and chaos. The Doctor’s journey is to find peace. And at the outset, it seems the only thing that will bring him peace is reestablishing his identity as a supreme surgeon. But under the tutelage of Tilda Swinton’s superbly acted, Ancient One, Strange finds peace as he grows into the Sorcerer Supreme.

The second Sunday of Advent (by the time this is posted, it will have been two Sundays ago) is commemorated with the lighting of the Bethlehem Candle, or the candle of Peace. For those of you keeping track at home, we are in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Old Testament passage for Second Advent is Isaiah 1:1-10. If you’ve ever seen those cheesy water-colors in the church office of lions and lambs having a cuddle in the grass, that image is derived from Isaiah 1. Personally, my favorite bit is about a toddler playing with over the den of an asp or cobra. It’s loaded with connotations of the serpent in Genesis 3. Not only that, in antiquity, the “asp” was associated with the power and royalty of Egypt, from whom God liberated the Israelites. A Hebrew baby will play carefree in presence of those who oppressed and enslaved his or her ancestors. Crazy. And the crazy continues as the passage closes… “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

My last Adent(ure) Thought elaborated on why Hope was the first essence we take with us on the Advent journey, moving towards Christmas and the birth of Jesus. So why is Peace the next essence on the journey? I think it is because it is only through internalizing the Hope of Christ that we find Peace. If Hope is what spurns us forward with each weary step, then it is Peace that allows us to take those steps with composure and a sense of serenity. Isaiah’s image of peace should feed Hope, as it was intended to feed the Hope of God’s people in the face of impending exile. As Hope is fed, perhaps peace grows out of it. Not the cosmic Peace of reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor as witnessed in Isaiah, necessarily, but maybe it’s the inner peace of recognizing ourselves reconciled to God in and through Christ.
Dr. Stephen Strange only really starts to find the peace to his chaos when he becomes oriented outside of himself. While training and studying under the Ancient One, Strange’s world expands beyond his profession and prestige, beyond his hands. It becomes oriented to the needs and hurts of the cosmos. Spoiler alert: his hands are never restored to what they were. Yet he is more at peace than he was at the film’s start.

Perhaps this is what Paul means in his letter to the Philippians when he encourages them with “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7).

Take Hope. Go in Peace.

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Kubo and the Two Strings: Family Stories and Minor Spoilers

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I know what your thinking. “Really, Dan? Just another edition of Minor Spoilers? Isn’t this three in a row? Is NoggingSquall slowly transitioning into a mediocre review site?” Have no fear, dear reader! Starting in September, I will be beginning a series on why Christians should actively pursue writing genre fiction, and pursue it diligently and imaginatively. I’m wicked pumped for it, honestly.

I love animation. From Animaniacs to The Simpsons to Japanese anime to Disney features. There is so much potential for the story teller to vividly share his or her imagination to it’s fullest. And while CG films are all the money-maker movie studio rage right now, those films rarely use the surreality of animation to it’s full extent. (As an aside, while waiting to see Kubo and the Two Strings, I sat through no less than FOUR trailers for CG talking animal films. FOUR! Dear Hollywood, after Zootopia, your best attempts are subpar. Try something else. I hear CG food is on the rise).

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Enter Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika Entertainment, who has brought us Coraline and The Boxtrolls, steps up the studio’s already impressive stop-motion animation. The opening scene of a small boat being thrown about on stormy seas puts the waves of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar water planet to shame. The meticulous care and the hours upon hours required for the animation is evident, as is the meticulous care to use the medium to tell a well crafted story. In fact, any other medium would not bear the story so appropriately. The film introduces Kubo as a storyteller who’s medium is origami paper which he animates with magic. Everyday, he goes into town to continue the great samurai epic of his father through folded paper that moves without the manipulation of human hands. It appears to be a deliberate allusion to the film’s stop-motion craft: paper and clay appearing to move with out human hands. This is only emphasized by young Kubo’s exhortation to the audience (both in the opening scene and in the town square) “If you must blink, do it now.” This is Kubo’s call to the story corner. This is his call to the campfire.

Kubo is oriented around family and the stories we tell about our families. I tend to think family stories are the most fun to tell. The film’s Japanese setting is a fertile ground of cultural heritage for such a focus on ancestry. It is an environment and heritage that, like the animation, is utilized to its fullest.

I have never given much credence to religious practices that include ancestor veneration or worship. I do not adhere to a religious or spiritual tradition that affirms it. As an avid fan of Japanese culture and history, I’ve read about these ancestry oriented traditions and have tried to understand them on their own terms, with varying degrees of success.

However, this was my first encounter with ancestry oriented spirituality since my grandmother died. And while watching Kubo and the Two Strings, I began to get it. I began to wrap my mind around how such a spirituality would develop anthropologically. Think about it. Your elder loved one dies.  Prior to the later half of the 20th century, he or she would have likely died in your home with the extended family unit. You and your household grieve. You desire the deceased’s presence with you. In a society that values the wisdom of the elderly, you desire their guidance. And perhaps you begin to associate certain occurrences around you with the intervention of your loved one. Maybe you begin to make connections between these associations and how that person lived his or her life before death. And then you start telling your children and grandchildren stories. Stories about your loved one. Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-paper hanzoAnd the stories begin to include not only what that person did in life, but what he or she is continuing to do after death. And maybe your grandchildren tell the same stories to their grandchildren, only now you are dead and your story is being told. And then they become legend. That’s kind of cool.

Let me be clear: I am grossly oversimplifying this development and I am not trying to discredit or disrespect such traditions. What I am getting at is that the thought of my grandmother still being present and acting on my behalf in the cosmos is a very, very appealing thought. I am reminded of her with every cardinal I see perch at the her old bird feeders outside my window. I am reminded of her every time I pack clothes in her old duffel bag that can’t seem to shed the smell of her apartment. More than ever, I can hear her voice in my mind’s ear and find myself imagining what she would say to me as I recount my daily activities over the phone to her. If she were present lately, she would ask how I like our new apartment and my new job. I would say “It’s alright,” and she would say “Just alright? Well Daniel, you don’t sound too enthused.”

I can hear it. Crystal clear in my mind’s ear with all the same inflection and tone I had heard from her for over two decades. We all want to believe our loved ones are still with us after death, don’t we? We talk to pictures on the wall. We sit in front of head stones at the cemetery and feel compelled to say something then perhaps feel foolish because there can’t be anyway the person can hear us. I empathize with these Eastern traditions. Let’s keep telling family stories.

Let me leave you all this cover of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Good stuff.

 

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Minor Spoilers: I Hope You’ve Watched Stranger Things

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I really hoped you’ve watched Stranger Things on Netflix. If you haven’t, I highly suggest that you close your laptop or put down your tablet and do so. It is a captivating, suspenseful and wonder-filled eight hours which you can definitely finish in time to read this post without falling behind here at NogginSquall.  Spoilers do follow.
It is rare that I finish watching a show (or reading a book for that matter), and immediately have to desire to dive into it again from the beginning. Not since Breaking Bad. Luckily, Stranger Things is only eight episodes. And those eight episodes are each so well crafted, well acted, and well written that nothing is wasted. There is no filler, no mindless, wandering dialogue or forced romance to drag out the plot. The Duffer brothers tell a concise, tightly-woven story. There is no doubt that all eight hours are never anything more or less than the story they wanted to tell. There are plenty of articles across the web concerning the Duffers’ love for Stephen King or how the show is a love letter to Spielberg and Carpenter. And they’re great articles that help unravel the creative threads and inspirations behind Stranger Things.
What strikes me most about this Netflix original series is how committed the creators were to telling a story; they didn’t give into the temptation to tell the audience everything it could ever know about this parallel universe known as “The Upside Down.” The Duffer Brothers have said they have a 30 page document describing this eerie, distorted shadow of our side of existence, yet have kept it largely on a need-to-know basis. Sure, one could say, “It’s just good marketing to keep some secrets.” To which I respond “No, it’s just good story telling, and good story telling captivates.” If the presupposition amongst production companies as that a good story telling sells, why do we not see more reserve in other shows or movie franchises, preferring to rush to pack every easter egg or cameo possible into them?
If the Duffer brothers had decided to restrict the show to an eight episode mini-series, the show would follow in the same mysterious tradition of the sci-fi/horror films from the 80’s. Many of them, especially adaptations of Stephen King’s work, conclude ominously. The return of Will Byers, and the sacrifice of Eleven bring appropriate closure to the two primary narratives. And while Will’s bizarre glimpse or shift into the Upside Down right before the credits roll implies stranger things are still to come, it is not necessary for the story to feel complete. The first season stands on it’s own, much in the same way that the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind are better left without sequels. The mystery of the unknown becomes part of the narrative itself.

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Now don’t get me wrong. I can’t wait for a second season. I think a mark of a well crafted story is that when it ends, you’re satisfied but desiring more. It leaves enough for your imagination to engage that you can’t help but keep wondering how the story continues. But the way it would continue in a sequel usually isn’t as satisfying as your wonderings. Nancy Wheeler’s arc comes full circle as she spends the Christmas evening with Steve. Joyce is eating with both of her sons as the family unit is restored. And Dustin, Lucas, Mike, and Will conclude a rousing game of Dungeon&Dragons with a climax similar to the game that introduces their characters at the beginning. While Hopper seems displaced amidst the seasonal cheer and is leaving food for Eleven (and we’re not sure if the two of them are communicating or not), it illustrates the reality that while some find closure, others do not. I’d argue that what brings the narrative full circle is that not everyone finds closure in the resolution because some people’s stories were not invested in quite the same way. Hopper was in a state of disorientation from before the show’s start. it would seem a little too convenient for Hopper to find the closure he needs by the end. His narrative goes beyond the concerns of finding Will Byers and defeating the monster.
I could say more about the monster. For now I’ll just say it is an incredible feat of practical movie magic. I hope you heeded my warning about spoilers. I think I may go start Stranger Things a second time tonight.

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Coming attractions

Hey everybody!

My sincere apologies.  I don’t have a post for this week.  I’ve been spending that last few days working on other projects., both personal and professional.  All good stuff.

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But have no fear!  The Squall is brewing up to some awesome content (at least I think it’s awesome).  Here’s a taste of what to expect over the next few weeks (in no particular order; titles subject to alteration):

 

  • Minor Spoilers: Stranger Things
  • Genre Fiction and the Prophetic Imagination (a 4-part series)
    • Beyond a Wardrobe: Why Christians Should Write Fantasy
    • Space Oddities and Aliens: Why Christians Should Write Science Fiction
    • The Fear:  Why Christians Should Write Horror
  • Minor Spoilers: Kubo and the Two Strings
  • The Other, Much Older Woman: Teresa of Avila
  • Probably some poetry.

Also, my wife and I celebrated our third anniversary last week.  She’s pretty great, not going to lie. LoRes-188

Catch ya later.

 

 

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Minor Spoilers (Comic Edition): Superman and Action Comics Introduce the Family-Man of Steel

Superman-Rebirth-Dead-ExplainedSuperman hasn’t received much love lately. Over the last decade, the Last Son of Krypton has had very few appealing story lines. Certainly a hero who is invulnerable to all but a couple very specific weakness (Kryptonite, red sunlight, magic), creates a some hurdles to overcome. And as of DC Comics’ The New 52 in 2011, and Zack Snyder’s depiction in The Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the most recent writing and marketing tactic has been to turn Kal-El into a brooding, angsty type who has far more emotional similarities with Batman than he does with his earlier life-long, “boy scout” persona. Because folks weren’t buying the boy scout Kryptonian. He seemed too perfect. When his powers were consistent, he seemed boring and spent more time fighting other aliens than saving Metropolis. When his powers were less consistent to make a conflict more interesting, there were some serious continuity questions (and if you’re a nerd like me, that bothers you… a lot). And with the success of Batman, and especially Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2009, making Supes into an angsty hero who wrestles with his powers like a pubescent teen with a cracking voice seemed like a master plan.
Only it wasn’t.
That Superman, as well as most the New 52, were poorly received. Needless to say, an emo Superman was falling flat with readers. So much so that with the launch of DC Universe: Rebirth, Superman was killed off (rather anticlimactically I might add).
But good news everyone!
Superman is back in action and it is sweet!

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Without getting into all of the continuity and back story, I’ll try to set it up best I can. The events of Flashpoint introduced the New 52 while also scrapping the prior DCU. However, amidst the heroes of the New 52, including N52 Superman, emerges the Superman from the previous continuity. But he appears with his wife Lois Lane and their son Jonathan Kent. And they basically hide out. But now with the New 52 Superman no longer with us, and the DC Universe: Rebirth in full swing, the boy scout Superman who know’s what he’s about and is comfortable in his own skin is back, baby! Out of hiding and taking up the red cape again to save Metropolis!
It may sound like cheesy comic book technicalities, and it is, but the Superman of Truth and Justice now has some responsibilities and roundedness of character that he didn’t before.   The Action Comics and Superman titles are four issues deep as of the first week of August.

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In Superman, we find a more personal story of Clark Kent trying to teach his son Jonathan what it means to have the powers he does. However, Jonathan’s abilities aren’t consistent with his father’s because he is half Kryptonian and half human, resulting in Superman and Lois Lane both having to walk along side their son as all three discover the complexities of Jonathan’s unique place in the world. The introduction of Superman as Super-Family Man gives Supes the chance to father rather than be fathered. He has stepped into the shoes of Jonathan Kent (Clark’s earth dad) and Jor-El. We’ve seen Kal-El be a mentor before to the likes of Supergirl, but this father and husband role adds new flavor to the Man of Steel.

If you’re looking for something on a broader Metropolis saving scope, Action Comics delivers. While Superman focuses on the Kent family, this title delves into a pre-Flashpoint Superman being immersed in a world that is oddly familiar but with some stark differences. (Spoiler Alert) By the second issue of the arc, Superman finds himself fighting Doomsday again (which doesn’t bode well if you know his history with this villain). However, he is also fighting along side a Lex Luthor who has taken it upon himself to be the successor to the deceased Superman. Lex even goes as far to wear the El family crest (the iconic S). Super Lex Superman is perplexed and skeptical of this version of his arch-nemesis who appears to have the best interested of Metropolis in mind.
How will Superman defeat Doomsday? Will Lex prove to be a true ally? Can Supes make the paradigm shift and learn all the nuanced differences in this new universe?

So far, writers Dan Jurgens (Action Comics), and Patrick Gleason and Peter J. Tomasi (Superman) appear to have found what makes Kal-El unique among superheroes. Here is a hero who wants to inspire hope in those around him, and genuinely desires to be in community with others. While this desire has been neglected by the majority of the Superman story, in the name of “The people I love could get hurt if they were close to me,” we now get to read an older, wiser Superman who is willing to take that chance and, dare I say, balance the tension of “work” and family. The Superman of the New 52 proved (hopefully once and for all… Looking at you, Snyder) that the grimmer, broodier hero-character trait of Batman is not a success formula to be applied across every colorful panel.superman rebirth 1 Rather, why that works for Batman is because Bruce Wayne lives with the tragedy of losing his family before his eyes and is reluctant to be close to even his first sidekick Dick Grayson, or his own son Damien Wayne (and now even the Dark Knight in DC Universe: Rebirth is actively embracing a familial life style for the first time since No Man’s Land). But Superman, despite having no home planet to return to, grew up in a loving household with Martha and Jonathan Kent from infancy. Clark Kent had loving parents and nurturing family life. With such fond memories of growing up, why wouldn’t a community-seeking Kal-El not let Lois Lane finally love him and subsequently start a family?

This return to Superman’s previous incarnation, and the new take on a Family-Man of Steel is a step in the right direction. It’s the Boy Scout in a new world with would-be villains he must revaluate and give the benefit of the doubt to. Can you teach an old Krypto new tricks?

So far, so good.

So grab a Little Caesar’s pizza, some Mountain Dew, and a few of the reprints at your local comic book store.

Forget the 2006 film. Now Superman has truly returned.

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