REVIEW: Tolkien

Have you ever seen the Saturday morning cartoon Captain Planet? With its infectious theme song (“Captain Planet, he’s our hero. Gonna take pollution down to zero!”) and cast of young people changing the world, it was hard to deny. The kids in the show held rings that gave them the power of the elements of the Earth. Their powers were magnificent. One controlled water, another earth, and another fire! There was one that seemed a lot less cool as a kid, the heart ring. What was the power of heart anyway? Then I met artist, Scott Erickson. He explained that as he discovered what it means to be an artist in the world and in the church, he realized he’d been given the heart ring.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien, Fox Seachlight’s new movie about the life of the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings tells the story of his upbringing, his schooling, his military service, his loves, his friendships, and his art. The John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, we meet in the film believes that art has incredible power. It does, doesn’t it? It is the artists of the world that give us words, images, and melodies to name, express, process, enjoy, or escape our emotions. Great art unifies, questions, challenges, and comforts sometimes all at once. In the film, Tolkien needed all that art provides but lived in circumstances that didn’t exactly allow a young man to explore it. This puts him on familiar ground with a group of other young men that become the foundation of this story.

Samwise Gamgee Carry GIF

There is a famous moment in the film adaptation of Return of the King when Sam tells a despondent Frodo, “I can’t carry [the ring] for you, but I can carry you!” This is what the “Tea Club, Barrovian Society” or TCBS does for each other. Tolkien along with Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Smith, and Robert Gilson form a bond around their passion for art, culture, language, and love. In the film, they push each other to challenge the status quo and carry each other through the Mount Dooms of life. There is something about this era of world history with the great wars (The TCBS all served in World War I) and stories of great courage and loss that have birthed incredible works of art. Tolkien is the story about how the TCBS and Tolkien’s friend turned wife, Edith, inspired a fantasy that still captures the world’s imagination today.

Tolkien’s life falls fairly short from being a fairy tale. He was orphaned at a young age and encouraged to place the loves of his life on hold. First, to pursue a stable career, and then by war. His response to the horrors of the world was to offer it a different story. His mother gave him a love of languages which led him to create his own. In the film, Tolkien says that language is the lifeblood of people and culture. Well it’s through his created languages that he gives life to Middle Earth, and to all the characters fans have grown to cherish.

Tolkien Mordor GIF

You can expect with Tolkien to see images and references to the author’s famous works, but the film does a great job at not hitting you over the head with the visuals seared into our hearts and minds from the Peter Jackson trilogies. This is an intimate film that pulls you into the trenches of war where beauty is hard to find, but also gives you a door into the mind that created a world filled with it. This world, Tolkien’s art, is about journeys and adventures, magic and love, quests to prove ourselves, courage, and, of course, fellowship. It’s art like this that should be consumed with a friend. It may help you discover who, in your life, has carried you up the mountain.

Tolkien TCBS GIF

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

C.S. Lewis is often quoted in A Grief Observed, “…pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The last time fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe checked in with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” The Avengers, they had taken the ultimate blow. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, their foe, Thanos, snapped his fingers turning half of the entire universe’s population to dust. Everyone on every planet in every galaxy lost someone.

 

Thanos Snap

 

If the Marvel franchise were reminiscent of the action/sports movies of the 1980’s, our remaining heroes (comprised mostly of the original 6 from 2012’s The Avengers) would engage in an exhilarating training montage, find Thanos, and punch him in the face even harder than ever before! So perhaps the biggest surprise in the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is that the villain in about two thirds of the movie isn’t one you can punch at all. It’s grief.

 

In Infinity War, the Iron Man that started it all, Tony Stark, was forced to hold a teenaged Peter Parker, his budding mentee and pseudo-son, in his arms as he faded away. Black Widow, who had finally allowed a group of people to become her family, had to watch it all come crumbling down. The Mighty Thor worked tirelessly to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos only to come up torturously short instead getting a front row seat to the finger snap that caused the genocide. Captain America has always been a little different. He is all too familiar with the cost of war. What we walk into with this movie is an exploration of grief from many different angles.

 

Captain America Crying

 

Black Widow throws herself into her work, trying her best to keep a grasp on what was. Cap dives into helping others process their grief harking back of his visits to veteran support groups in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Thor, having had losses building up across several movies, had all of his hope for a brighter future riding on him being able to take out Thanos. He is coming completely unglued from the Avengers team, from his responsibilities as king, and his own health. Meanwhile, Stark, the team’s futurist, has embraced the present to build something new. Anyone who has felt a loss will likely relate to one of our heroes’ forms of coping. Grief works itself out in so many different ways, and there’s really no perfect script to handle it. 

 

Naturally, in the world of comics, the bad guys never triumph for long and evil is rarely afforded the final word. In the midst of their grief, a tiny light of hope comes along as the film launches into another wild Avengers adventure. Much like in Infinity War, we get to see new combinations of characters interacting and many memorable moments being created. Endgame is a gigantic movie with a runtime to match. Clocking in at a little over three hours, hardcore fans will be settled in for every second, but it will challenge the patience of fans on the peripheral. Hopefully, casual fans can hang in there, though, because the climax is nothing short of cinematic history unfolding. The final battle of this film redefines epic. 

 

Avengers Endgame

 

Yet pain insists on being attended to, and for those who have been following this franchise for the last 11 years across 22 films, there is going to be pain associated with Endgame. It very much is the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Of course, the film sets up plenty to be explored in the future with Disney’s streaming service already promising limited series starring some of our favorites, but until Comic Con or D-23 (Disney’s annual convention) later this year there are no current plans announced for a Phase 4. 

 

This is the end and it feels like it, but what an end it is! Endgameis filled to the brim with threads and references built across the entire franchise. For those who have spent the last year rewatching all the films, studying every frame, quoting every quip, there is a lot of pay off and closure. For casual fans of the franchise who have been empowered by Scarlett Johansson, endeared to Chris Evans, charmed by Robert Downey Jr., or infatuated with Chris Hemsworth, there are plenty of laughs and thrills. It has been an incredible ride, and Endgame is a fantastic finale, but don’t be thrown off if you feel a little grief after saying goodbye to such a history making franchise.

Manhood & “Creed 2”

The story of Creed II, the follow up to 2015’s revitalization of the Rocky franchise, really begins in 1985 when Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, Rocky, met perhaps his most infamous foe, Ivan Drago, played with stoic intensity by Dolph Lundgren. The seeds that have become the Creed franchise were all planted in this fourth installment in Rocky’s story.

It’s in that movie that Adonis Creed’s (Michel B. Jordan) father, Apollo (Carl Weathers) was killed by the mad Russian in the middle of the ring after Rocky fails to throw in the towel and stop the fight. When Apollo fell to the mat for the final time, the conflict of Adonis’s life began to take shape. Apollo didn’t want Rocky to throw in the towel. He was done fighting, and fighting was all he had. This tragedy launched Rocky towards a fight with Drago, a fight that would leave Drago to a life of disgrace and bitterness. And this tragedy left Adonis not just fatherless, but also without any of the answers his father was lacking about life.

Creed 2 GIF

Creed II (2018)

In 2015’s Creed, Adonis had to wrestle with his identity as a Creed and as a fighter. What did it truly mean to be Apollo’s son? It’s a question he was asking from the beginning when Mary Anne, Apollo’s wife, told him who he was. It’s a question he asks every time he steps in the ring. By the end of that initial story, Adonis dons his father’s trademark trunks adorned with the Creed name, as well as his mother’s, Johnson. Through that first film, Rocky taught him how to fight, how to embrace who he is. Creed II, however, gives Adonis even deeper questions to answer.

If movie one was asking what did it mean to be Apollo’s son and a fighter, the sequel is asking what does it mean to be a father and a man? Rocky IV happened in the middle of a decade that was, in many ways, defined by toxic masculinity. The everyman with the heart of a champion from the Academy Award winning Rocky, was replaced by a greased up, steroidal version. This was true of some of Stallone’s most well-known roles. John Rambo went from an intense critique of our treatment of Vietnam veterans to one giant muscle with a machine gun. Look to other popular culture from the 80’s and you’ll be drowning in a testosterone tsunami. Raunchy teen comedies were a dime a dozen, and Hulk Hogan was flexing his way into a household name.

This was an environment where Apollo Creed thrived. He could prove his manhood with every foe punched into oblivion, but when we meet him in Rocky and Rocky II, he’s already a star in decline. How then can he prove his manhood? Based on Adonis’s age, Apollo’s extramarital tryst that conceived him had to have taken place in close proximity to his death by Drago’s glove. Still he stepped into the ring with the Russian. Sex couldn’t make Apollo a man. He lost to Rocky. He was outmatched by Drago. Boxing could no longer make Apollo a man. So, he threw in the towel on life. Apollo’s inability to find a manhood that was more than muscle gave Adonis a life without a father.

Rocky 4 Staredown

Rocky and Ivan Drago before their iconic fight in “Rocky IV” (1985).

In Creed II, we find that Ivan Drago similarly suffered to discover meaning beyond boxing. His loss to Rocky knocked him down further than we saw in Rocky IV, and because of that his son, Viktor, grew up with a bitter boxing coach rather than a father. Viktor is nothing more than a tool Ivan will use to restore his own manhood, to redeem his loss to Rocky. To truly win by the end of Creed II, Adonis needs to break this cycle of toxic masculinity. He has to find something beyond all the drills, the fights, and the bright lights of fame. He can’t avoid being a Creed, but he has to avoid being Apollo.

Not every punch Creed II throws lands. It’s not as ground breaking as its predecessor, but in the stories of this next generation of men there is something really special. If viewers can go along with Adonis (and Viktor) on this journey and reflect on what it is that could make him successful in the end, perhaps we can all learn from the mistakes of the past. The sweaty machine gun masculinity of the 80’s was a steroid-fueled façade. If men are going to fight the good fight of life, it involves humility, partnership with women, and profound selflessness. For Adonis, this is a painful lesson, but one that takes him beyond his father’s legacy.

Full of “Venom”

Kane, a delightful British bloke played by John Hurt, is all smiles at the table. Having seemingly recovered from his close encounter with a face-sucking alien, he’s excited to eat a normal meal and share a laugh or two with his ship mates. Unfortunately, this meal isn’t going to sit well with the newborn extra-terrestrial calling Kane home. Fans of the 1979 space horror classic Alien know where this iconic scene is headed. It’s a scene that works for many reasons. Sure, it’s shocking with a high gross-out factor, but it also delves into metaphor playing with perhaps one of life’s greatest existential dilemmas…what is it that truly lies beneath our surface? This question is most recently explored in Sony and Marvel’s Tom Hardy vehicle, Venom.

Venom Transform GIF

Venom (2018)

Our outside isn’t scary. Think about all the channels we have to control what others experience from us. Everything from a fresh haircut to a hot new fit to a flattering selfie camera angle, helps us regulate how others see us. Aside from physical appearance, we have all kinds of mechanisms that act as bouncers keeping those who might want in on the right side of the velvet rope. Talking about the weather or a simple “I’m fine” are some of my favorites. No, our outside is safe, but our inside is a different story.

Who are you really? If everyone knew every thought you had or every feeling that has captured your heart would they still love you? Forget love, would they even like you? As pretty as your outside is, what if nobody could handle the monster hiding inside? So we hide in fear, but all of that hiding and fear can give us the false impression that we are the good guy in our story, a false impression Venom’s lead character carries. When we’re introduced to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a popular investigative reporter and charming beau to Anna (Michelle Williams), he has total control of his outside. However, his inside starts seeping out and over the first act of the film his life totally unravels. Still, Brock tries his best to keep his outside intact. He lies to himself. He’s not the problem. He’s not to blame. He’s still a really good guy. Except, he’s not and it takes a lot for him to realize it.

By a lot, I mean it takes a sentient, parasitic alien goo inhabiting his insides. This isn’t just any alien goo, though, it’s Venom, one of Spider-man’s most popular and visually memorable villains of all time. Venom is a species called a symbiote. They pair with a host, merging in every way. The lines blur between Brock’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and Venom’s. They become one on such a level that they refer to themselves with plural pronouns. “We are Venom,” the pair will say.

It’s said in the film that the symbiotes need to find a compatible host to survive. Hold on. Venom is a homicidal psychopath. He’s a villain. If Brock is the good man he thinks he is, if he’s the good man that exists on the outside, why does he make such a good host for the bad guy? The most intriguing and entertaining components to this story take place in Brock’s journey of self-actualization. This only happens because Brock’s ugly inside gets a face and starts oozing out to the surface. Is he all bad? No, but his goodness doesn’t begin to shine until he confronts the darkness inside.

Spider-Man Venom Animated Series

Venom and Spider-Man from the “Spider-Man” (1994) animated series.

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky as to have a parasitic alien inhabit us? Here’s the good news, though, as scary as our insides can be to us, they’re not to God. When we find ourselves in a place where we’re exhausting our energy to keep our deepest darkest feelings at bay, are we really living in the freedom Christ offers us? When we engage in practices of prayer, confession, and repentance we are letting our inner horror movie out. When we willingly bring that darkness into the light before God and others, those things that bring us guilt or shame or embarrassment, those things that we think will surely expel any love we’ve ever experienced, those things that we think will drive others away, the opposite of that begins to happen.

Here’s the thing about God, as Romans 5 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God knows us already. You can’t hide your scary bits. When our insides stay hidden, they have power and control over us. They take up real estate in our hearts and minds, but once they’re let out, it opens up space for something else to dwell. When we acknowledge our sins and place them at the foot of the cross we can say along with Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

When the darkness inside meets the Light, it doesn’t stand a chance. This is how our hearts change. We will never scare God away, and others that have God dwelling in them can handle our horrors as well. God dwelling in us creates a symbiotic relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. That relationship probably won’t turn us into a superhero but may give us everything we need to bring actual goodness into the world instead of the false veneer of goodness we present. Venom isn’t the greatest movie in the world, though fans of the character and Hardy will probably find it to be an entertaining depiction. Some of the film’s treasure lies in its call to self-reflection. It might just be time for us all to let the monster out.

The Names of “The Hate U Give”

There is a pastor that I know who is really gifted at making baptism feel really personal. As the person approached the fount, there would always be an exchange where this pastor would read their full name aloud, and then explain the etymology or meaning of the name. “This is…,” he would say as he announced their name, “…their name means courage (or love, strength, etc.).” Another pastor I know, has the person state their full name and then says, “[insert name here], child of the covenant, very loved of God.” Usually, a life altering pivot point is what brings us to the baptism fount. I love that these pastors use it as an opportunity to continue to remind each person who they are. Our names come with some powerful purpose, promise, community, and love attached to them. God knows us and call us by name.

The baptisms I’ve been honored to witness, have been powerful ceremonies where the subjects’ names have been used to remind them of the new life ahead. In recent years here in America, another cultural ceremony has become all too common. One that involves names being read, tweeted, and shouted through megaphones. The names of some fellow image bearers have gained a new meaning in death. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Antwon Rose. Botham Shem Jean. These names have become a cry of lament. Their meaning has shifted from purpose and promise to loss and pain. These are the names of people of color who died in incidents like that depicted in the film, and the book it was adapted from, The Hate U Give.

The Hate U Give GIF

The Hate U Give (2018)

Police brutality and excessive use of force have become hot button issues in American society. It is one of those issues that has always bubbled under our collective surface but found a new boiling point in the digital age. Those names and the many like them are now loaded guns. For some they inspire protest and action, for some they tap into fragility or fear, and for others all they call forth are tears. So how on earth could a young adult novel or it’s film adaptation cover such an emotionally charged topic?

The Hate U Give does it with grace, truth rooted in experience, compassion, and authentic performances. In the story, Starr (an Oscar-worthy performance by Amandla Stenberg) is witness to an unarmed friend being murdered by a police officer during a traffic stop. The film follows the personal, social, and societal fallout for Starr following the crime. As a white man, I am limited in how well I can translate Starr’s experience for you, but I can speak to what I experienced during the film. There was pain that it might be tempting to become numb to and there was hope I pray we never lose.

Following the murder in the film, some of the heartbreak comes from how painfully familiar the older generation was with what was happening. The film opens with Starr’s father explaining how to, best as he possibly could, survive the average traffic stop. Later he knows Starr will be haunted by the trauma in her sleep. The book and film get its title from Tupac Shakur, a late prophetic rapper whose words I wish would become less relevant. The events in this story are the same act in the same play that people of color can’t seem to get out of.

Tupac The Hate U Give

Tupac Shakur’s prophetic legacy lives on in The Hate U Give.

Starr’s father, Maverick, tries his best throughout the film to give his children guidance based in the reality he knew, but he also tried his best to give them hope. That hope is expressed as he explains the names he gave his children. They were intentional to remind them who they are. He knew Starr was always destined to shine, he drew his son Seven’s name from the Biblical number of perfection, and his son Sekani’s name from the joy he hoped he’d never lose. Their names point towards a future filled with purpose, promise, community, and love. Mav knows that he had to give his children something more than hate. The Hate U Give reminds us that those names that we’ve seen tick across the bottom of the news or trend on twitter need to give us more than hate as well.

The Hate U Give is worth seeing, probably in community, and coupled with some rich discussion, prayer, and follow-up. It is a work of fiction, but it is an invitation to enter a very real experience. Khalil Harris is a fictional character, but Trayvon Martin was a real person. Sandra Bland was someone’s daughter. God breathed life into Eric Garner and gave him his image to bear. Oscar Grant walked, and talked, and laughed. The emotions and opinions attached to these names after their deaths can be exhausting, but if we ever hope to give the next generation a better world we better remember everything those names now mean.

The Horrors of Parenting: A Quiet Place

“How can anyone bring a child into this world?”

Have you ever heard someone say those words, or perhaps said them yourself? In many ways that sentiment is understandable. The world is a harsh place, full of potential threats and abuses and hurts. Full of prejudice, division, and evil. Life is fragile with no guarantees of tomorrow. That is a lot of uncertainty to take on if one is going to be a parent. To be responsible for another life in a world where all you have to do is turn your back for a second and your child could vanish.

quiet place turned backs

It is this very fear that the horror/suspense film A Quiet Place confronts. On the surface it is a movie about a world inhabited by monsters (perhaps the result of an alien invasion) who are blind, but have an extremely heightened sense of hearing. The smallest sound could immediately attract them, throwing you, and anyone near you, into grave danger. The tagline of the movie is, “If they hear you, they hunt you.” It is in this environment that a family is attempting to survive together.  They’ve succeeded so far by living off the land, settled on a remote farm. With few, if any, people around them, the potential for sound is much more controlled.

The parents have created an elaborate system of silence. The father (played by John Krasinski who is also making his directorial debut) has created paths around the farm for the children to walk, lined with sand that will dampen any sound. They primarily live in the barn now because the old wood floors in the farmhouse are too creaky. Their eldest child is deaf (played beautifully by Millicent Simmons who is actually deaf) which provides a new blessing since the family all knows sign language and are able to communicate without speaking. Much of the film is silent, the dialogue and soundtrack are very limited. There in an ominous tension that pervades the film, but which is interwoven with sweet moments of the parents (made more believable by Krasinski and Blunt who are married in real life) connecting with their children and attempting to help them have semblances of normalcy. They are a loving family in a traumatic situation who are doing their best to live as a team.

quiet place family

As the film progresses you realize it is about much more than blind monsters, it is a metaphor for the fears of parenting. The setting of the story amplifies the reality that parents can never control their child’s every move.  Children will inevitably knock something over by accident. Even when you create literal paths for them to walk, they will veer off it. They will disobey and fail to understand the urgency behind their parents’ rules. They will perceive the world and have feelings that their parents will not understand or did not intend. The “horror” of A Quiet Place is the fact that it is impossible for parents to protect and control their children all the time, despite how much they love them or are trying to give them everything they need to live well. The frailty of the children is so keen. Beginning with the unpredictability of giving birth, to a newborn who needs to cry (Emily Blunt has some spectacular scenes here), to a pre-teen who is not always in control of her emotions. As an audience member you feel the parents’ anxieties and helplessness deeply.

And yet that is not all we are shown. As the suspense heightens, the children are separated from their parents forcing them to rely on their own wits and on each other to survive. As much as the kids are incredibly vulnerable, they are also profoundly resilient. We see flashes of deep emotional insight as they understand more than their parents expect. They are able to think on their feet and make connections that reveal they were listening to all the careful instruction. They are able to work together as they have seen their mom and dad work together. And what seemed like the greatest vulnerability of the family becomes their greatest strength. It was when the parents did not have perfect control that the kids grow and become stronger.

quiet place kids

A Quiet Place is ultimately a heart wrenching and hopeful picture of family. The world is a very scary place, but as the book It’s Not Too Late by Dan Dupee describes, being the perfect parent is not what kids need to be healthy. Kids need parents who love them, are involved with them, and who also allow them to experience life’s many facets. Sometimes the things we fear the most for our children, experiencing pain and unhappiness, are exactly what they need to become compassionate and resilient adults.

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

Let me describe a scene to you from the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Tell me if it feels familiar to you. The story’s lead Jyn Erso has agreed to help the Rebel Alliance gain access to her former mentor Saw Gerrera. They travel to Empire occupied Jedha, home to Gerrera and an ancient Jedi Temple. It’s not long before Erso and the rebels are caught up in scuffle, as Star Wars rebels tend to do. Erso is being led around the planet by rebel leader Cassian Andor. Andor has been carrying the weight of rebellion on his shoulder for years. He is constantly burdened by the safety of the mission and his team. There is a pride to this burden and this pride leads to my least favorite scene in the movie.

In the middle of the skirmish, Andor is leading Erso around a chaotic battlefield reminiscent of scenes of modern warfare we’re used to today. Naturally, Andor can’t possibly account for every danger around every corner and he and Erso get cornered by a squad of dreaded Stormtroopers. Looking at Andor you see the face of failure. They’re doomed, dead where they stand. Suddenly, Erso kicks into high gear and drops both the troopers and Andor’s jaw. He can’t believe Erso single-handedly dismantled the troopers. He can’t believe Erso, who is the mentee of the very accomplished rebel they were there to find, who had been providing for herself for the better part of a decade in a conflict-heavy galaxy, who he had rescued from a prison labor camp alongside other hardened criminals, who is the daughter of one of the greatest geniuses in the galaxy, could possibly have the skills to survive that situation. So why is Andor surprised?

Wonder Woman Old Panel

Andor is probably surprised because decades of film history have told him that whenever a woman fends for herself, its surprising. This is a feeling of surprise Han and Luke felt the minute Princess Leia grabbed a blaster and led them down the garbage shoot. So here we are, it’s 2017, and we have our first big-screen adaptation of the world’s most famous superheroine, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been around for decades, and, in that time, has fought her way from the Justice League’s secretary to one of the busts carved into DC Comics’ Mount Rushmore alongside her fellow pop culture icons of Batman and Superman. One would hope that, as we’ve entered a moment in cinematic history where studios are ready to put women in the title role and in the director chair, we would stop being surprised by what women are capable of. One would hope…

Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and her male companion, Stever Trevor, enter a dark London alley. They’re carrying crucial intelligence the British military needs to gain an advantage in World War I and are being pursued by undercover German soldiers. Just like Erso and Andor in the battle on Jehda, Trevor leads them into a corner. He doesn’t see a way out, and he’s burdened by a need to find a way out of this hopeless situation. A German gun goes off and Trevor knows the bullet’s for him. A “ping” familiar to Wonder Woman fans rings out as Prince stops the bullet with her signature cuffs. Trevor’s jaw drops. He’s surprised that Wonder Woman, the one who saved him from a plane crash, the one who he watched take out a dozen German soldiers in an earlier battle, a woman he learned is from an advanced race of Amazon warriors from a supernaturally hidden home world, could possibly be the solution to them surviving the ambush.

Amazons

Wonder Woman, as a film, is filled with breathtaking action scenes, charmingly fun banter between interesting characters, and some of the coolest, most memorable superhero moments committed to film. It belongs at the top of the list of DC’s most recent efforts and right alongside its Marvel Comics (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) peers. As reviews for the film have been positive, and as Wonder Woman continues to be a cultural icon, my fear is that story that comes out of the box office this weekend will be headlined by surprise.

Wonder Woman will lead the box office in bouncing back from the lowest Memorial Day numbers in about a decade. Last week, two movies were released that were supposed to kick start the summer cinema season. Helmed by a juggernaut franchise and a human juggernaut in The Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch were financial disappointments. They led the summer into a dark alley and had studios questioning if they’d survive. Here comes Wonder Woman to save the day.

Gal and Director

Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

We live in a world with Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, who led successful peace negotiations between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips. We live in a world with Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director who not only became the first female African America director to helm a $100 million budget movie with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time but, also, created the wildly complex and riveting Queen Sugar, a show she intentionally hires up-and-coming female directors to lead. We live in a world with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years for her political activism before being elected to lead the Myanmar government. We live in a world with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and sexual assault survivor/activist Kayla Harrison, activist for female education Malala, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa. We live in a world where more women than men are graduating college. We even live in a world where even American Ninja Warrior has seen Jessie Graff break course records. There are women of wonder all around us.

The success of Wonder Woman shouldn’t be a surprise, and, hopefully, will send a clear message that we’re ready for more. Just recently, Academy Award winning actress Jessica Chastain, while serving on the Canne Film Festival jury, commented on the current climate of female representation in film, “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” For this to change, our view of what women are capable of has to change. We have to believe women can lead brilliant, complex and compelling stories because they live those stories every day.

We’ve come a long way and Wonder Woman might be the beginning of something great. Her character, like the women of the world, has fought for her place on the marquee. We have forced women to fight for their place at the voting booth, in the classroom, in the lab, on the hill, in the battlefield, at the finish line, and in the conference room. Women will continue to fight, so when will men stop being surprised when they can fight better than us?

Justice League

Getting the most out of “Get Out”

As a professional wrestling fan, I have been a participant in more than a few raucous wrestling crowds. The average pro wrestling crowd is a true cross section of America and, through years of observing the art form, I’ve come to recognize what kind of storytelling earns those crowd reactions. There are certain veins of the human experience wrestling easily taps into. Think about the saga of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the blue collar, unfiltered every-man, and his billionaire nemesis, Mr. McMahon.

The beats of this story were familiar to a wide audience. Who hasn’t had a bad experience with a boss? Who hasn’t felt bullied by someone to the breaking point? For months and months at a time Mr. McMahon would use his vast resources to keep Austin under his thumb. Then in the big matches…Austin would have his day and the crowd would go wild! The performers take the emotional stress and trauma many have experienced and supply a release of that pressure. When Austin punches McMahon, we all get the feeling of punching the evils in our life we can only dream of fighting back. It’s exhilarating and therapeutic. I love a good crowd reaction, but when similar cheers rang out from the audience at my viewing of Get Out, I couldn’t help but feel heartbreak.

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Get Out is a horror movie, written and directed by comedian Jordan Peele (Key & Peele). I’m no stranger to the horror genre so it’s easy for me to recognize the familiar tropes. What Peele does so beautifully is turn those tropes on their head and showcase the horror of the everyday experience of many people of color. Take away the wild twists, turns, and horror violence of the movie and there is still plenty of tension and horror. “[It] was to say there’s a monster lurking underneath this country. And even though you don’t always see it, it’s there, and a lot of us know it’s there,” Peele told Ebony magazine of the film’s real monster, racism.

Naturally, when the topic of race is approached in any medium, a flood of political backlash soon follows and this has already been the case with this movie. Get Out’s perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes score was tarnished by a review from a right leaning website, a review that not only gets simple details wrong, it incorrectly categorizes the film as a comedy saying it doesn’t stand up against “classic” comedies such as the critical and financial flop Norbit. What is particularly difficult about reviews like this, is that, by reacting far too quickly and harshly, it misses the heart of what Get Out is saying.

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The story isn’t asking for political action. It’s not asking for widespread, big government intervention into issues of race. It’s not asking for the impeachment of the current president. It’s the cries of a biracial artist in America, from his celebrity platform, pleading for the majority culture to listen and immerse themselves in the horrors of everyday life for the minority. My viewing was so heartbreaking because it was clear this was the experience of many of the people I shared a theater with. Their cheers at the film’s climax were voices joining in to the cries of the filmmaker.

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Get Out is a gift, it’s a window into the life of our fellow human. My prayer is that viewers might be able to listen to the cries, to fight back the initial urge to react, and join in on the experience. While the film isn’t asking for political action, it is asking for the feelings and experiences of people of color in America to be validated. You might not immediately understand what is going on in every scene, but what an invitation to ask why you don’t or to see the movie with a friend of color. “That’s the nicest thing you can hear from a white person sometimes: ‘I don’t know,’” Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya told Vulture.

As much as this film is fun to examine (there are tons of small details pointing to the history of race in our country), Peele is also asking you to examine your reaction to each scene, particularly throughout the final act. This herculean, first-time directing effort manages to cover incredible ground touching on relationships between races, genders, cultures, and within races, genders, and cultures. Sometimes the movie features humor you’d expect from Peele while at other times it features situations akin to academic studies on race. The narrative you enter with Get Out is complicated but so is experiencing its themes in the everyday.

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“When I watched it, I was like, ‘This is how racism feels.’ You get really paranoid, and you internalize it, and you get really weird around people that are close to you, and you don’t understand it. You don’t know if you’ve got the right to be angry, and then it all goes f****** ape sh**, because you have this release of rage, because you’re not around people that you can talk about it with. The rage suits the genre. Like I said, there’s nothing more horrifying in life than racism,” Kaluuya says later in the Vulture interview.

If you are willing to ask some hard questions of the film and yourself, here are some I’d offer. *SPOILER WARNING* Some of these questions carry mild spoilers for the film.

– Rose’s father says a lot during the tour of the house…his relative was defeated by Jesse Owens, he would have voted for Obama for a third term, he feels bad about having people of color as servants…why might any or all of these situations make Chris uncomfortable?

– Even though the party scene is exaggerated, do you believe people of color often encounter conversations like these in real life (ex: a woman asks Rose if “being” with a black guy is better)?

– Once it’s revealed what is really going on at the Armitage home, what does it say about views of the black body through history? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever harbored anger or jealousy of the physical abilities of a person of color?

– Once it is revealed what is going on with Georgina and Walter, what does that tell you about the awkwardness of the interactions between them and Chris previously in the film? Why were these interactions so awkward?

– By the end of the movie you might realize there is actually more going on in the scene with the police officer at the beginning. Why might Rose have so adamantly jumped to Chris’s defense?

– Have you ever watched a slasher or horror movie before? They often feature a white female protagonist. Was your experience with the final villain showdowns in those movies the same or different than with Get Out? Particularly, when Chris has the film’s final villain in his grasp, do you feel differently than you might if the roles were reversed? Why?

This is a rated R film, so you may also want to take that into consideration before watching it.

“Loving” – Quietly Changing the World

“I’m pregnant.”

A young woman nervously shifts after blurting out this news, waiting for her boyfriend to respond.  To her relief, he’s happy and excited. He loves her and is committed to her and to their child. Soon afterwards he proposes and they sneak off for a simple wedding. Sounds pretty unremarkable. This young couple who are poor and living in the same rural community have fallen in love and want to build a life together. Except that it’s 1958 in Virginia and he’s white and she’s black, and it’s illegal for them to marry.

Thus begins the film “Loving” which tells the true story of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were behind the Supreme Court case to legalize interracial marriage. Their struggle to live in their home state as a married couple and family became a turning point court case during the Civil Rights Movement. A landmark ruling that broke down racial barriers and changed our country forever.

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The film quietly asks a very powerful question, “What kind of people change the world?” On the surface, the Lovings are not a splashy and charismatic couple. The film’s director Jeff Nichols pointedly depicts their deep normalcy and simple desire to be a healthy family. Both Mildred and Richard are poor and not college educated. They seemed to be kind and friendly people, but they largely kept to themselves and were by no means on a crusade of epic proportions. Their path to world-changing was marked by small decisions based on what was in front of them at the time.

The first decision was to marry and honor their relationship and child with fidelity and love. Then when they were forced to leave the state or be jailed, they moved to DC and did the best they could to build a home for their growing family. But they missed their relatives and the peace of the country, and wanted their children to be in a safer environment closer to family. So when Mildred is presented with the suggestion to write to the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, she takes a chance to ask for help. From there it was small steps of meeting with a lawyer, continuing to communicate with him about their case, being photographed for Life Magazine, and hoping that things could be better. We see Mildred in particular gain a growing sense that their case could benefit many other people and she exudes a quiet optimism that change could be possible. On the day that their case is heard before the Supreme Court, the Lovings weren’t in attendance. The day in court is a very minor part of the film, Nichols choosing instead to focus on the family at home going about their normal lives together (but still nervously waiting for the phone to ring.) Because of their persistence to believe the life they wanted together was possible, 9 years and 3 children after they first married they are able to see an outcome that changed their lives and opportunities for countless other couples since.

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Who comes to mind when you think of people that changed the world? Is it famous people in history books? People that have biographies and Broadway musicals written about them? For most of us, we don’t immediately think of the ordinary people around us in our daily lives, and we probably don’t think of ourselves. But world-changing doesn’t happen all at once when we decide it should, it happens gradually when people begin taking small steps to do what they can in their realm of influence. Richard and Mildred didn’t decide in 1958 that they wanted to catalyze a Supreme Court case and force the government’s hand to change federal legislation. They decided that they wanted to do right by each other in their immediate situation, and then went from there.

I once heard a speaker at the Jubilee Conference talk about Daniel in the Bible and the long road of faithfulness over our lifetimes. Daniel is known for facing off with lions and having God save him when he was thrown into a den of the ferocious beasts. What we don’t often think about is that Daniel was in his 80s when that happened. He’s known for a spectacular event that every Sunday school kid has heard, but we don’t write songs about all the normal years he spent in Babylon quietly honoring God every day with the work and opportunities that were before him. Scripture is filled with other ordinary people who were under-qualified and unremarkable and yet who were invited to join God in doing spectacular things.

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You may or may not have to chance to do something that changes history in a way that other people will notice and remember, but maybe being extraordinary isn’t the point. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, unforeseen challenges and gifts. Each day is an opportunity to honor God in our decisions and relationships. Only God knows where it might go from there.

“God must love ordinary people, He made so many of them.”

– Abraham Lincoln

We all look different in “Moonlight”

“Running around, fishing in a boat of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

What is the best setting to tell a scary story? I’m imagining that you visualize a dark, moonlit night with your friends surrounding a campfire. The low light of the fire casts deep, cavernous shadows around your eyes. Maybe to enhance the effect you’ll hold a flashlight just below your chin.

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Light has a funny way of influencing our perception. It’s interesting that often when we talk about our mistakes or successes we employ a metaphor of a positive or negative light being cast. Let me cast some light on the story of Moonlight, a terrific movie out now directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is about Chiron, a boy growing up in an impoverished project in Miami. His mother is an addict. His father is absent and his closest father figure is a local drug dealer. He also struggles with his sexuality. Take a minute and ask yourself where this story is going?

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Was it easy to write Chiron’s story for him? This is a light that we have seen shed before and Moonlight features many elements you might expect, but the beauty of the film lies in the unexpected, both for the audience as well as Chiron. The movie is divided into three acts providing snapshots of pivotal seasons in Chiron’s life that established his identity.

In each of the three acts, Chiron, who’s normal demeanor is stoic and silent, guarded against a world that has hurt him again and again, lets that guard down. He exposes himself to the love, support, and judgement of another. For fans of the Bible, this act is often translated to the sharpening of iron, right? We expose ourselves to have our rough edges smoothed out, to sharpen our character.

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This Biblical metaphor is intimidating to me for one reason, we are the iron. We all have the responsibility to sharpen and we are all vulnerable to the sharpening. My ability to sharpen comes with my bias, my emotions, and my selfish motivations that are part of being human. Which then begs the question, what bias, emotions, and motivations am I vulnerable to being sharpened by?

When you imagined how Chiron’s story would play out, what identity or narrative did you project on him? We often homogenize the people around us, fitting them into assimilated boxes of our cultural identity to fit roles that make us feel comfortable. Moonlight is, perhaps, equally about the dangers of forcing people’s identities into boxes as it is about the hope that comes when we are free to be defined by something that transcends stereotype.

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Chiron sits at the dinner table with Juan, his drug-dealing father figure. He asks him about a derogatory term he has heard which Juan explains is a word used to “make gay people feel bad.” Chiron then wonders if that term defines him. In this moment, Chiron is vulnerable to sharpening, wanting Juan, who has shown him compassion and love, to cast a light on him. Juan sets Chiron free by saying that he doesn’t need to have his whole identity figured out yet.

From there, Moonlight takes many turns you might not be prepared for…some expectedly tragic, some surprisingly uplifting, some powerfully universal. Fair warning this film will not be for everyone and an inspection of the film’s content rating will help frame your viewing. That said, the narrative of Chiron’s life features a complexity seldom seen in modern cinema. It is familiar, but unique. It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.

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None of the specific instances, good or bad, define Chiron’s whole life. Each act is distinct. There is great freedom and hope in that. This is a freedom I am given by Christ. There have been many moments in my life that shined a negative light on me…but that light hasn’t defined my whole identity. There have also been moments that cast a positive light, that have brought me love and respect. That isn’t the full story either.

What if you were always seen in the perfect light? What would that change about the way you define yourself and make decisions? This is the beauty of the Gospel. Jesus not only took the punishment for our worst moments, he gave us the reward for his best so that God will always look upon us under a perfect, loving light. A light that will never be overcome by darkness.

While you watch:

What moments in the film surprised you? Why do you think that is?

What would you have told a young Chiron at the dinner table if he was asking you the questions he asks Juan?

When in the film does Chiron let others to define him? What is the result?