Monday, June 1, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Up (2009): The Spirit of Adventure. That's the name of explorer Charles Muntz's dirigible. The famed explorer disappeared into the South American rain forest in search of a rare jungle beast. A young Carl Fredricksen, also seized by the spirit of adventure, happens upon a kindred spirit in Ellie. They fall in love. Their romance is earnest and rich, a lifelong marriage filled with depth and commitment. When Ellie finally passes, Carl's life feels like it's coming to a close. But a final adventure awaits, and through tying innumerable balloons to his tiny house, Carl lifts off and heads to Paradise Falls in South America.

It turns out that Carl has an accidental stowaway, Russell, the young wilderness explorer determined to get his final merit badge. Together, Carl and Russell experience an imaginative adventure filled with humor and heart. A large colorful bird lovingly named "Kevin" and a talking dog named Dug form the small band of explorers on a quest to bring Ellie's house to Paradise Falls. Kevin is hilarious, but Dug the Dog literally had me in tears with his earnest dog-like phrases. "I have just met you, but I love you," is a great example of Dug's simple mindset. I laughed more watching Up than any previous Pixar film. Sure, there are moments where the film gets a little too imaginative--thinking talking dogs flying airplanes--but those moments are few and still amusing.

Pixar's latest carries a depth and profundity that none of its previous films have done. The romance between Carl and Ellie is wondrous and genuine. My eyes watered at Ellie's passing, and the pathos throughout the film is arresting. Carl and Russell form an unlikely bond, sharing large dreams of adventure and a deep longing for companionship. I commented to my movie-watching companions that this is a youth ministry film: Carl and Russell share life together, and through the ups and downs they both mature, change, and become more whole than they would have been apart. The seventy year age gap means nothing; trust, friendship, and the willingness to look out for one another trumps any social boundaries. Carl looks out for Russell while Russell challenges Carl to think of others before himself.

The ongoing theme in Up is that relationships matter most. Carl and Russell happen upon an elderly Charles Muntz still searching for his rare beast. While Charles at first seems friendly, his agenda to capture his treasure soon trumps any ability to connect with fellow human beings. Charles has sacrificed relationship on the altar of accomplishment. He views adventure as exploring the jungle and capturing wild beasts at the expense of others. Carl and Russell begin to realize that the spirit of adventure is not found in faraway lands or wild escapades, but in the profound beauty of everyday interactions with people. In talking about his former closeness with a now-distant father, Russell muses that "it's the boring stuff that I miss the most." The near-absurdity of their adventure with talking dogs, flying houses, and evil geriatric villains is contrasted with a common friendship. There is a depth and a wonder to the ordinary, an adventure to be lived every single day with the people around us that we love. The details of everyday life--driving to work, cleaning the house, reading a book, sharing a meal--these are the moments where we are interacting with people made in the image of God. C.S. Lewis once wrote that, "there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit."

The spirit of adventure is made alive in our relationships with one another. That is the message of Up. And a beautiful message it is.

Valkyrie (2008): It's difficult to keep a story suspenseful when you already know the ending. We know that the Allies invaded Germany in WWII. We know that a defeated Adolf Hitler committed suicide in a bunker. So a story about an assassination attempt on Hitler has that working against it. Yet director Bryan Singer manages to infuse a tension into Valkyrie that keeps the story afloat.

Based on a true story, Valkyrie focuses on a German solider, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) as he progresses from silent contentions to outright treasonous action. Surrounded by other Germans in the underground resistance, Operation Valkyrie is an elaborate plan to use one of Hitler's own defense systems against him. The plan doesn't stop at just killing Hitler; military forces are employed to strategic locations and a new government must be established. Key people have to be in place. Communication and timing must be perfect.

Cruise portrays von Stauffenberg with a stoicism that makes him seem downright robotic. While there are brief moments of emotion, Cruise keeps the same expression on his face for the majority of the film. It's difficult to connect with his character as he doesn't reveal enough of himself to empathize. Thankfully other key players help keep the pathos of the film; Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson give fine performances as other conspirators.

I mentioned the suspense and tension that Singer brings to the story, but there are still moments that remain slow. Long scenes of shadowy conversations behind closed doors are intertwined with the actual assassination attempts. The attempts are suspenseful and thrilling; the dialogue is necessary plot-filler at best. It was also distracting for me to hear American and British actors playing German soldiers with no German accents.

The film reveals the difficulty for human beings to act against authority. I remember once reading about a social experiment performed by Stanley Milgram in which test subjects were told by a scientist to continue pushing a button that would administer an electric shock to an unseen second subject if a trivia question was answered incorrectly. The shocks would increase with intensity until the subject believed the were actually injuring or killing the second person. An administrator would order the subject four times to continue the experiment regardless of the screams coming from the other room. What percentage would keep administering the shock if they were continually told by the scientist to keep going? An alarming 65% continued pushing the button, knowing that they were causing bodily harm to another human being. Authority is a powerful thing. Cruise's von Stauffenberg is one of the few people who refused to allow his morality be based on a human authority, to appeal to something higher than a governmental system. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg would call this a level six morality, an appeal to a universal ethical principle. We ask ourselves, "why didn't more Germans act? Why didn't they rebel against Hitler and the inhumane things he was ordering?" But let's take that question 2000 years earlier: why did the Jewish and Roman leaders order the execution of an innocent man named Jesus? Why didn't anyone stand up for him? Let's move back to the beginning of history in Genesis 3. Why didn't Adam stand up for Eve? Why did he remain silent, not pointing out that trusting a talking snake over their Creator probably wasn't wise?

I don't know. We may never know. But I do know this--the ability to act on principle and stand up for what is right is the face of courage. Valkyrie's story of a failed assassination points out that action is better than passivity, that the sin of omission is just as wrong as the sin of commission, that our own morality must appeal to Someone higher than ourselves for guidance and redemption.

The Reader (2008): I almost couldn't finish this film. I don't usually walk out on films or turn them off unless they're simply unbearable. The Reader came close. The story follows young Michael as he begins a summer affair with an older woman, Hannah. Hannah is in her mid-30s; Michael is only 15 years old. Their relationship is purely sexual in nature, and there's a lot of it in the first half of the film. I share this because that's the point of The Reader--speaking what needs to be said, regardless of shame or consequence.

Michael and Hannah's relationship abruptly ends after only a few months, but their encounter dramatically alters both of their lives. Years later in law school, Michael happens to sit in on the trial of Hannah for Nazi war crimes. It turns out that she was part of the SS, a guard who knowingly sent hundreds of Jewish women to their deaths. Michael is torn; the woman he feels that he loved turns out to be a horrendous criminal with a shameful secret. I won't share that secret here, but it's quite easy to guess based on the film's title and the first half of the film.

I wondered about sharing on this blog that I watched The Reader. As someone who is passionate both about film and about youth ministry, sometimes the two are held in tension. Will parents think less of me knowing I watched a film with such an overtly sexual premise? Will students seek out to view a film they surely should not watch? I'm not sure. Yet these questions are where the power in the film lies. Michael shares his secret about the affair with no one. As he grows older, the secret and the shame that it carries dramatically affect his entire life. His relationship with his family wilts, his marriage quickly falls apart, and he finds that he can no longer truly relate with another human being. Hannah too carries a secret, a secret that leads her to choose to be part of the SS and to ultimately admit to crimes she may have not committed. Why? Because shame and secrets are powerful things that grip us and drive us to isolation. So I share my "secret" with you because there is a beautiful release when our secrets and shame are exposed. Scripture points to the power of shame by contrasting darkness and light, calling followers of Jesus to expose their sins in the light of Jesus so that they can find grace and forgiveness. Michael spends his whole life looking for absolution while trying to keep his past hidden. It can't be done.

As a film, The Reader does have some beautiful cinematography and direction. It tells a compelling story about the power of shame in the context of post-WWII Germany. Kate Winslet gives a great performance (though I would have given the Oscar to Sally Hawkins or Anne Hathaway last year). I wish it didn't have all the sex stuff. I wish the filmmakers could have shown that in a more tasteful way. But they didn't. So here I am, imploring you to use wisdom and discernment and remain authentic in watching films.


  1. I don't know about you Joel Mayward.. . that's TWO recent movie reviews I'm not sure how I feel about (Terminator and UP). You guys need to live here so we can go see these movies together!!

  2. Kristy, did you like Terminator and didn't like Up?

  3. Umm...kind of. I really enjoyed Terminator. Not the best movie ever or anything, but I felt like they were setting us up for another great trilogy, rather than just giving the fans everything they wanted in the first film. If they continue, I think we're going to see John Connor progress into the great leader he's prophesied to be, and see more relationships established (his wife is pregnant for crying out loud. No way they're not going to use that later). Plus the action was super cool, and I thought was more true to the original Terminator, rather than bringing in all the corny humor of T2.

    As for UP, I did enjoy it, but it definitely wasn't my favorite Pixar. It started REALLY well. I love how they established Carl and Ellie's relationship, and I admit it, (SPOILER ALERT) I totally cried for him when she died. But in the second half, it kind of jumped the shark for me. My initial "huh?" was when they're in the Spirit of Adventure, and for some reason Carl decided he cares about and wants to protect Kevin. Up until that point, he'd been trying to get rid of him. I didn't see any sort of transition that would make it believable to me that he would potentially sacrifice his goal of getting to Paradise Falls. Does that make any sense?

    I can live with the talking collars, which were funny, but still I think Pixar was back sliding into HAVING to have something that doesn't normally talk be able to. And the dog planes were unforgivable.

    I agree with what Brian said. A movie either has to have a ridiculous premise from the start (Monsters Inc, or Cars), or a realistic premise with one ridiculous factor (the Incredibles with super powers, or UP with the Balloons). The collars were pushing it, and the planes just pushed it right over the edge.

    Ok, I'm writing too much. haha.

  4. We took the kids to Up yesterday. Oh my gosh ... it was great. My kids didn't budge which is always a great sign for a kid flick. Ethan asked to go home about 20 times during Night at the Museum 2. But Jud and I didn't budge either. We loved it. I think it is my favorite cartoon movie ... taking the place of Mulan (which I've loved forever) and Nemo.

  5. Joel,

    I just wanted to thank you for your movie reviews. As a fellow youth worker and lover of films, I have heeded your advice on many films that might have been stumbling blocks for my youth or even myself. In the case of The Reader, I say thank you, as it was in my list of movies to watch. God bless brother and keep up the great work!

  6. Chris, thanks so much for the encouragement! I'm glad this movie blogging thing is helping others out. :)

  7. we saw Up tonight- just reread your review- i loved it (yes, the dogs flying planes was a bit much =). the quote that stuck out to me was the one you actually quoted on your blog (about the boring things in life) and really hit home to me. love love loved it! great review.

    side note: have you seen/heard about Sin Nombre?