Location, Location, Location

Reston Movie Theater by Adam Theo on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

Think about some of your favorite movies. Do you remember where you saw a particular film? I mean, what theatre you were in? What city? Who you were with?

I don’t recall these details for every movie, obviously…like you, I’ve seen quite a few in my life. The very influential films, however, stand out in my mind (read: nearly every superhero movie), and a few others, as well. Perhaps it’s more noticeable lately as the theatre experience grows progressively less prevalent and more of our viewing occurs on our own schedule and on our own screens. Still, most of us go to the large screen at some point to see a new release…at least a few times a year, although I wouldn’t have statistics to prove that…and that few times a year becomes more memorable to us as it become less frequent.

So…maybe the decrease in frequency is a good thing.

Each year for Christmas, I get a couple of DVD’s that I requested, favorite movies that I saw during the course of the year. This is a family tradition of which I am the sole beneficiary, and I have no regrets. For the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’m able to recall the theatre in which I saw every movie that I’ve received. The mid-sized New England town in which Karen and I lived just before our move South in which we saw Thor 2 and Captain America, the North Shore theatre in which I was profoundly disappointed in Days of Future Past with a friend, the nearby showing where Karen and I were swept away by Maleficent and the theatre here in North Carolina where we were surprised and impressed with Guardians of the Galaxy.

Now, certainly I’ve been easily prone to nostalgia here of late, but I don’t think that’s the case this time. I think that movies are just the culprit that I notice because of the afore-mentioned decrease in frequency of trips to the theatre. It’s become an unofficial journal, of sorts.

I firmly believe that there’s an atmosphere to a particular geographic location, something that I offhandedly refer to as it’s “vibe,” that shapes our experiences while in that location. While my thoughts on comic book mythology have grown and expanded over the years, the discussions and thoughts that I’ve recorded while living, for example, in Virginia, are a bit different than the ones I recorded while living outside Boston.

There’s a concept of the theology of place. Oversimplifying, the geographical locations in which we live are shaped by different local histories, cultural norms, even climates. These things impact how people living there interact interpersonally, intrapersonally, and theologically. What might the norm for interactions in New England could well be considered offensive to our friends in the South (something of which I find myself constantly on guard). Our ideas of each other, our ideas of our activities, our ideas of God…our ideas themselves…will manifest differently based upon the sculpting influence of our environment.

So, where we are isn’t just where we are. We will carry the way it shaped us…and the way that we shaped it…forward with us, a part of who we are, of how we think, of our life experiences. That’s why living in different places and experiencing different types of relationships is so critically important, and why humanity is the better for our ability to do so.

It’s also, I think, why recording reflections on these sorts of things…even if it’s only thoughts on the movies, for example, that we’ve seen…in a place where we can come back to them is so very important.

I want to be able to remember the locations of all manner of things that I’ve experienced, not just movies, because of the other memories that this triggers. The people and places of my life are so important, things to pass on to our daughter and to re-live occasionally ourselves, but also a starting point to help us remember that we shouldn’t be afraid of the past, shouldn’t dwell in what may perhaps be temporary negativity in the places where we live, and give us courage, if nothing else, to know that, based on prior experience, our current situations will all turn out to be okay.

Wherever those experiences happen to be occurring.

Photo Attribution: “Reston Movie Theater” by Adam Theo , used under Creative Commons

A Review of “Green Lantern”

In the interest of full disclaimer, I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan than a DC Universe fan. That fact notwithstanding, I played with Justice League action figures as a child, and developed an interest in the recent animated adventures of both the Justice League and Batman. The new Batgirl title has earned my affections, as well.

For the most part, however, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable regarding Green Lantern as I am about, for example, the X-Men.

Karen and I doubled with some friends this weekend to take in the new Green Lantern movie. I was secretly suspecting the worst after reading a less than favorable review, and I went in armed only with basic knowledge of the classic comic book hero: that he is inducted into an intergalactic corps of peacekeepers known as the Green Lantern Corps, that he is the guardian of Earth’s sector of space, and that he is deceptively powerful, as his ring transforms his will into energy, effectively creating any form that he can imagine. Green Lantern has always been one of the more original superheroes from the golden age of comics. 

And, while I understand the previously mentioned negative review, Green Lantern performed well. This movie is worth your time.

The issue with condensing origin stories into the plot of a two hour film is that there’s never quite enough time, at least not if you’re going to tell anything other than the origin story (which, of course, must be done, otherwise the movie would be largely uninteresting to any but the most seasoned of nerds). Particularly difficult here was telling two histories: that of Hal Jordan, and that of the Green Lantern Corps (along with its arch-nemesis). Of course, this necessarily involves a love interest (it was the golden age of comics, after all!). All crammed into an average length movie, when the story could easily have been expanded to an epic-length film. The result is what we’ve frequently seen with origin stories for comic book film adaptations: stories that move too quickly, at the expense of character development. My primary complaint with Green Lantern was that it fell into this trap. Worse, it exacerbated the problem by cutting entirely too quickly between sub-plots, leaving the audience thinking that “there really should have been more to that…oh, wait, we’re back to this guy now…”

In short, Green Lantern suffered from a minor case of story arc whiplash.

Of course, there are the requisite corny one-liners that are inherent in comic book film adaptation, as mentioned in the negative review referenced above. Still, many viewers (and likely devoted Green Lantern fans) might find this nostalgic to the comic book’s pages, so this is a complaint based entirely on perspective.

Oh, and there’s that brief second in which we see a Lantern’s ring generate what appears to be replica of Captain America’s shield (Cap is a Marvel character), which leaves one frozen in disbelief. One cannot, as we know, cross the streams.

What’s interesting is what is symbolized in the myth of Green Lantern, and that is the evil power of fear (symbolized by the color yellow) that is overcome by the triumphant power of will (you guessed it, the color green). While portraying the basic meta-message that courage must win against fear for good to triumph, this also smacks interestingly (at least as the movie spins the tale) of American work ethic, a self-made, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality as Hal Jordan leaves the Corps’ good graces to fight for Earth himself, as the Guardians decide that this one planet does not merit the Corps’ attention during a crisis. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this telling of Green Lantern’s story, but it seems that the undertones are a bit didactic at times. Then again, I imagine many would argue that this is what makes a good superhero tale.

The story, however poorly cut at times, is complete, however. The visual effects are beautifully rendered, and the climactic action sequences paced just right: not so huge as to cause you sensory overload (as in Transformers), but still big enough to provide the requisite spectacle due a classic superhero. Green Lantern is not the best superhero adaptation I’ve seen from Hollywood this season (that title still rests with Thor), but its certainly a close second.  Even if you’re only a DC hobbyist, as I am, instead of a devoted fan, you’ll enjoy this movie.

And I even bet you fight the urge to applaud when Jordan recites the oath of the Green Lantern Corps: “…Let all who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!” You may or may not be successful in fighting that urge.

Image taken from the “Downloads” page of the official movie website

A Review of “X-Men: First Class”

X-Men: First Class

 While I had collected comic books for some time before I first encountered the X-Men, they have remained by far my most profound comic book experience. I remember my first glimpse of these literally life-altering characters, on an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends one Saturday morning, and buzzing with excitement for the rest of the morning. I promptly picked up the most recent issue on my next outing to comic book shelves, and still remember that issue today, as Cyclops, Colossus, Wolverine, and Ariel took on Mystique in a carnival funhouse. I was hooked, and have remained so ever since.

I heard mixed reviews about this weekend’s opening of X-Men: First Class before I could carve out time to go to the theatre myself, both this somewhat flattering review from the New York Times, and this harsh, if somewhat hollow, review from the blogosphere. I went in open to the possibilities, and hoping that the X-Men would find the phenomenal cinematic interpretation that Thor recently experienced. You see, prior to this weekend, the last worthy X-Men movie was X2.

And, after this weekend, the last worthy X-Men movie will still be X2. X-Men: First Class was, sadly, not first class.

The movie continues the “origin” trend that has become popular in cinematic comic book adaptations over the last few years (and apparently is continuing with their comic book predecessors, as well). We pick up here with Magneto’s tragic childhood in a Nazi prison camp, and follow his later meeting with Charles Xavier as they become allied with the U.S government to defeat a plot by the Hellfire Club, introduced well in this movie, who are behind the Cuban Missile Crisis in this version of history. What follows is an unpredictable mesh of mutant history with international intrigue as Xavier forms the first group of X-Men to prevent nuclear annihilation.

The problem is the discontinuity with the classic X-Men story arc. This first becomes apparent as we discover that Professor X has adopted Mystique as his sister, and that the two have grown up together (all together, now: “What the….???”).  More overtly, however, this “first class” of X-Men is, in fact, not the original group of X-Men from Marvel’s history, which was comprised of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, the Angel, and the Beast. Nowhere, in fact, have we seen this original group together as such in the X-Men movie adaptations. This is particularly unfortunate here, because the costume designers for First Class have captured the original X-Men uniforms with superb skill.  To find these costumes on a disparate re-casting of the first group of X-Men (only the Beast has continuity) is disappointing at the highest level. The inconsistencies don’t stop, there, however: instead of Cyclops, we see his brother, Havok (as a teen, like most of the others in the group), who has inexplicably been in prison. Moira MacTaggert, who rightly plays an extremely influential role in the film, is not only a CIA operative instead of a geneticist, but also American instead of Scottish. That’s not just odd, but downright wrong.

These examples highlight the larger issue plaguing the X-Men film adaptations, and that is the fragmentation of the history of the characters. Because the original X-Men film introduced the most beloved of the characters instead of the actual first team of characters, others have been introduced at incorrect stages of life in the story arcs (for example, Iceman and Rogue). First Class maintains some continuity with the other films (such as explaining how the Beast works for the government and has known Xavier for some time at his first appearance in X-Men: The Last Stand). However, the discrepancies far outweigh the continuities, even with the other films (how, exactly, does this work with the discovery of Emma Frost and Cyclops at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?), because these characters were simply not intended to meld together in the way that the screenwriters attempt here.

The film does do some things right, though, and one of those is visuals. Emma Frost and Banshee, particularly, are extremely accurate visually, and Sebastian Shaw is an excellent and critical inclusion, as the Hellfire Club are the villains here. In fact, the entire cast of actors are extremely attractive people, which helps the movie tremendously. Its just too bad that the same amount of care couldn’t have gone into the writing.

Another positive contribution of this film to the X-Men cinematic canon is that this is the first time the audience understands Magneto, the first time we find ourselves thinking that we can sympathize with how he gets to where he is…similar to how we sympathize with Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to the Dark Side in Star Wars, Episode III.

Overall, however, First Class, while providing great visuals and its share of good laughs, further diminishes the legitimacy of X-Men film adaptations. Those of us for whom the X-Men hold a particularly special place in Marvel’s comic book mythos find it tragically true that even the best of these films were launched with deep difficulties and have grown unmanageable in the end…or, in this case, the beginning. The X-Men movie franchise should either be declared dead, or re-booted entirely.

As for seeing First Class on the big screen, I wouldn’t waste the money from your budget. Toss this one into your Netflix cue, instead.

A Review of “Thor”

I’m a comic book, super-hero geek.

Try to hide your surprise at this revelation.

When I saw the trailer for Thor, my initial reaction was that it looked really sharp. The plot? I figured it could go in either a really good, or a really bad, direction. My weekend was made very happy by the fact that the former was true.

From an acting perspective, the major actors all turned in excellent performances. Chris Hemsworth captured the character of the cocky immortal who needs to learn his lesson well, and I was impressed with his physical mastery of the character and the fact that he brought a good range to the performance. I have no recollection of Hemsworth from Star Trek or his other work, so this was essentially his debut performance for me. I was impressed.

I found myself equally impressed with Natalie Portman’s performance. While she perhaps didn’t bring as much range to her performance as Hemsworth, she breathed life into her scenes with fantastic facial expressions, which are a tell-tale sign of good acting. This was a pleasant surprise for me, because casting Portman opposite any actor playing Thor seemed a remarkably odd choice at first blush. The screenwriters, of course, took some liberties with Portman’s character, Jane Foster, but this should ultimately be expected with film adaptations, and will be a problem only for the most devout of comic book purists. Even then, the chemistry between the two actors will likely salvage any contrarian opinion.

From a plot perspective, the story stays true to Marvel’s immortal character who is modeled after the thunder god of Norse mythology. His reckless love of warfare finds him unfit to inherit his father’s Asgardian throne, and places him in the position to uncover his brother, Loki’s, nefarious plots, while he grows as a person (helped along, of course, by Jane Foster). Character development runs light in Thor, but the viewer doesn’t miss it so much because this is epic, sweeping story telling, of the sort that is all about plot and little about characterization. In short, this film isn’t meant to develop deep characters, it is meant to introduce the audience to an epic hero.

And, in that, it is successful. The lead-in to the upcoming Avengers film is quite blatant, and certainly left me wanting more. Long-term comics fans will like to know that the movie also briefly introduces Hawkeye…just enough to get you interested, of course (and the child in the row in front of me asking his father, “When’s Hawkeye coming back?” made the moment for me, in any case). I found interesting that the end credits close with the proclamation that “Thor will Return in the Avengers,” sort of reminiscent of the old James Bond films.

The epic, sweeping storytelling is, of course, a visual feast. Nothing pleases a comic book fan more than when the super-hero on the screen looks like the super-hero on the page, and, in that regard, Hemsworth could not have been cast, or costumed, better. My only hesitation is that Mjolnir is designed perhaps a bit too much like the image from the page, because it felt like a prop at times, almost breaking the illusion. This especially occurred when others attempted in vain to lift the hammer, and I found myself thinking, “it looks like cardboard.” The only other significant visual discrepancy I found was the semi-Celtic design left in the ground when Asgardians arrive in our realm. The design has no explanation, other than to look interesting. I suppose that, if that was its only purpose, it succeeded.

These minor issues notwithstanding, the combat sequences were well choreographed but not overbearing, and the balance between live action and CG was superb and without distinction as you watch the film. In fact, I would say the action sequences featuring Thor in battle are visually perfect, complete with the spinning hammer and slinging, hammer-propelled flight. In this, you won’t be disappointed.

The finishing touch on this particular super-hero film is that parents will not feel uncomfortable taking their children for any reason. There is, in my mind, absolutely no objectionable content here for parents to concern themselves about, and that is important for a film about a mainstream super-hero such as this.  Important, and a delicate balance to strike if the film is to do the character justice.

And it does.

Thor opened this weekend. If you grew up loving Marvel comics, as I did, or if you have just recently become enamored with their films or publications, you’ll want to see this movie. Certainly, it is one of Marvel’s best film adaptations to date.

Photo Attribution: popculturegeek 

Disbelief in Disbelief

Okay, so being the super-hero nerd that I am, I couldn’t get to the theater fast enough last weekend to see Spider-Man 3. I wasn’t disappointed. The movie was full of great web-slinging action. It was also full of forgiving thoughts and redemptive images. Very much so, actually…I walked extremely impacted with the essence of forgiveness, redemption, and second chances. I’m grateful that I’ve received more than my share, and I find myself with a renewed determination to give this forgiveness as well. My personal studies have been about grace for the last two weeks, and this is sort of a culmination of those readings. It happened by divine appointment, I’m sure.

As I sat in the theater this weekend, the lights went down, the preview loop finished and the feature started began, I was caught up in that excitement you experience as you realize you are about to experience a story. There’s a knowledge that you’re about to permit yourself to be drawn into that story, apprehended by what it has to say. In theatre, we call this the willing suspension of disbelief. It is when you stop realizing that the story isn’t part of the real world, and start believing that what’s on the screen or the stage is real. It is then that the story has you.

If you’ve been here before, it comes as no surprise to you that I have difficulty accepting the validity of hyper-conservative Christians. It boggles my mind that we can turn our beautiful faith into such a strict set of rules, regulations, and fear that we can’t breathe. For several years of my childhood, I was engulfed in just such an environment, however, so I can at least empathize if not understand it. Along these lines, there are people (who call themselves Believers…I’m not always so convinced) that reject this concept fearing that somehow their souls will be drawn into the fiery abyss if the permit themselves to be taken in by the story. They freeze like deer in headlights because they fear the possibility that they may see/hear/read something that (gasp!) offends them. And certainly, God never wanted us to be offended, right?

(If you need to pause to roll your eyes or experience some other violent and involuntary physical response to this nonsense, go ahead…I completely understand)

In fact, our churches have largely rejected story altogether. The attitude seems to be the Falwellian principle that, if didn’t really happen, then we shouldn’t be interested in it. Fiction is for children. Real Believers focus on good, solid devotional and theological non-fiction, right?

Well, ignore with me for a moment the fact that 98% of the devotionals lining our bookstore shelves are crap and that theology will always end in heresy if followed to its logical conclusion. Instead, just think about Scripture for a second (you know, Scripture…it’s what people used to read before there were devotional writers). Jesus told these wild things called parables. Parables, while occurring within the realm of what is possible, are, by definition, fictional stories. Jesus used fiction to illustrate spiritual reality. Jesus was a story-teller. His apostles were writers. Yet, the modern church seems to shy away from this as a viable medium of communication.

Fortunately, as the emergent church movement begins to take a stronger hold in both mine and the next (occasionally even the previous) generations, there seems to be a return to story. The emphasis has rightly returned to reading Scripture as narrative literature instead of the analytical picking apart of each individual word that many seminaries tend to favor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning nonfiction. In fact, it’s probably my strongest genre as a writer. However, when we look at Scripture, we see that God uses all types of genres in His writing: the straight-forward non-fiction of Paul and James, the poetry of David, the historical records of Chronicles and Samuel, the vision-casting apocalyptic writing of Revelation, the fictional parables of Jesus. Some have even posited theories that the Song of Songs was originally penned as drama. So many different styles to God’s literature. So many lives changed by all of the above. So many people offended by much of its content.

So, apparently, God wasn’t too concerned about offending people with His writing.

There is an important component to all good art: if you haven’t offended someone, then you really haven’t done it right. People think when they are offended. They engage in self-examination. They see themselves and their environment differently. All of these are things that art is supposed to bring about.

We’ve become so interested in enclosing ourselves in a bubble as Believers that we immediately disregard anything that may offend us. We’re afraid of seeing a play because a character may swear. We’re afraid of going to a movie because it may be too violent, or contain magic. We’re afraid to read a novel because it may contain a point of view with which we don’t agree.

And, in doing so, we’ve stagnated our own growth. We’ve become still, we’ve become irrelevant, we’ve become paralyzed.

We’ve become, in a word, pathetic.

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