Sleeping Beauty…Reimagined

Today I took my teens to see the new Disney movie, “Maleficent.” It was an awesome movie, and I recommend it highly! Check out the trailer, and then read on to see why I liked it so much.

The movie is a reimagining of the Disney classic, “Sleeping Beauty,” told from the perspective of the villain, Maleficent. It is more than a retelling; the details are certainly different, which you would expect when “the other side” tells the tale.

I am wary of movies like this because the original is such a huge part of my childhood. (we watched a lot of Disney movies) Imagine if the Transformers was retold from the perspective of Megatron or something…perish the thought! This, though, was awesome. Angelina Jolie did a tremendous job as Maleficent. The rest of the cast kept up with her quite well and supported her efforts in good ways. The plot moved well and had enough twists in it to keep me from going and getting a popcorn refill, and the visual style was really fantastic.

Positive Elements (PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!)

This really is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but from the perspective of the villain, Maleficent. The story, though, goes quite a bit differently as you would expect. I don’t want to spoil the whole plot for you, but Maleficent starts off as a wonderful fairy, then turns evil because she is terribly wronged by her love, and then finds redemption through his daughter Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). Disney’s storyline says:

A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal – an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces a battle with the invading king’s successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom – and perhaps to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.

While we joked that she is like a female Anakin Skywalker, in reality it is a wonderful story of redemption.

Maleficent is wronged, horribly, by her first love, Stefan. He uses her trust in him to terribly wrong her by cutting her fairy wings off, a scene that had me weepy. That wounding leaves her physically, but more emotionally, scarred and she builds walls around herself to protect herself and her people. The walls are emotional as well as literal, and at one point she builds an impenetrable thorn wall to keep humans out of her land which is a powerful metaphor.

Her revenge against Stefan comes in the form of a curse on his daughter. Maleficent hates Stefan for what he did, and there is some cause for that. She keeps an eye on his daughter to draw out her revenge, and as she does she comes to like and then to love Aurora. In the end, Maleficent comes to sacrifice herself for Aurora and be redeemed from the evil that has grasped her heart.

Good to evil, and then in the name of true, selfless love back to good. This is a great story line and a powerful discussion for parents to have with their children!

Stefan also represents a powerful story. He really does love Maleficent, but he is power hungry and his thirst for power drives him to perform evil acts. It then traps him in his evil, unable to erase the consequences of his actions when they come back to hurt him. He becomes quite paranoid and his paranoia and desire to protect himself and his daughter from Maleficent take absurd lengths. His bad decisions snowball, little by little, until he has lost everything he holds dear. He dies at the end of the movie not just broken in body, but in spirit as well. This is another powerful lesson.

Maleficent has a minion named Diaval who shape shifts from human to raven (and to wolf and dragon on occasion…Maleficent controls that). I expected her minion to be a typical sycophant, but Diaval is much more than a sycophant. He has some stellar discussion in the movie. He acts as Maleficent’s conscience in some sense, urging her to take care of Aurora when she is young, and helping Maleficent by speaking hard truth to her when she needs it. He serves an important role in the movie, and it’s worth thinking about having a friend who can speak the truth to you and help you when times get tough.

There’s a fourth positive element for parents to talk to kids about. That’s the truth that people are seldom black and white, good or evil. We see Maleficent in the original Sleeping Beauty as a purely evil character, but in this movie she is far more nuanced. So, too, is Stefan. Real life seldom has people wearing black hats or white hats. Instead, everyone does what they think is right at the time and everyone’s actions are motivated by their own emotional needs and their experiences. This holds true across the board.

Finally, there’s a small element in the movie about Stefan becoming mentally ill as the movie progresses. It’s handled quite well, with his wife and subjects trying awkwardly to deal with him as he delves farther and farther into paranoia. It isn’t campy and it isn’t made fun of, but it is a major driver of the plot. This is a great discussion to have with family about mental illness and its affect on people and their loved ones.

Negative Elements

I find little to be troubled by in this movie. If you have a moral objection to magic use, skip this one. (duh!) I don’t have that problem and it’s set in a fantasy world, but if you’re sensitive to magical use the movie is filled with it.

The scene when Prince Phillip kisses Aurora can be seen, perhaps, as him using her body without her consent when he kisses her. I didn’t take it that way, but it was an awkward scene and purposefully so. The kiss is very chaste.

The film does not follow the Disney plot from Sleeping Beauty verbatim. It’s a reimagining. This could be a negative in that the villain is portrayed as the ultimate hero, but to me this is a story of redemption not of glorifying evil. In fact, it shows how evil happens and that no one is beyond redemption.

Overall

I have been asked if this movie is okay for kids. I would take my 8 year old to it without concern. If the original Sleeping Beauty is too scary for your kids, this movie will be as well. If not, it’s no worse for sure. It earned a PG rating and that seems appropriate to me. There is no sexual content at all beyond a chaste kiss, and no language in the movie.

I really thought this is a great movie. I enjoyed it thoroughly and so did my teens. We had great discussions on the ride home about all the points above. I recommend families see this and talk about the themes. Disney does a good job of bringing good moral messages in creative packages, and Maleficent keeps that pattern intact.

The Dark Knight Rises: A Fitting End

This is probably too late for the masses who’ve seen it, but last night I got to go see The Dark Knight Rises. Here’s the short version: I liked it a lot, but my wife hated it. If you’re a Dark Knight fan it’s a must. If you’re a comic book fan, it’s a good movie. If you’re just a casual movie-goer, make sure you’ve watched the first two movies in the Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) before seeing this one or you’ll be lost. If you dislike violence or psychological suspense and darkness, skip this one. There’s a good plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and I always appreciate the movie reviews on PluggedIn.

 

There are plot spoilers in this review, so caveat emptor.

 

The Good

 

I appreciated the redemptive message of the movie. After The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne goes into hiding and Batman retires. Bruce is seen as a husk of his former self who must rekindle his love for Gotham and find the strength within himself to return to the Batman persona and once again save Gotham from the evil plan of Bane.  His selflessness and willingness to do the right thing when he has every reason not to is inspiring. I especially appreciated a scene when Selina Kyle (Catwoman) tries to get Batman to come away with her and escape the bomb blast that is coming. Batman chooses to stay and save the city. He also repeatedly offers Kyle opportunities to redeem herself.

 

I love the themes of loyalty in the movie as well. Alfred is loyal to a fault, even going so far as to leave his job with Bruce Wayne in the hopes of saving him. That is admirable. John Blake is a character who starts as a beat cop and through the movie becomes a detective and is later prepped to become Robin in possible future movies. He is loyal and has great integrity. He is a great character in the movie.

 

I also think that there is a great theme of consequences in the movie. Commissioner Gordon is haunted by his inability to tell the truth at the end of the previous movie, and his lie bears the terrible consequence of bringing so much pain to Gotham and to himself. Bruce Wayne withdraws from society and the world around him falls apart. He loses much of his fortune, his health declines, and even the philanthropic work he was doing stops because his business loses money. Worse, since he is gone from Gotham as Batman, the scheme of Bane is allowed to take shape.

 

I also thought that the plot twist at the end was great.

 

The Bad

 

This movie is a Christopher Nolan movie, based on a comic book series that is in itself quite dark. If you are naïve enough to think, ESPECIALLY after The Dark Knight, that this movie wouldn’t be very violent and dark then you get what you earned. It is violent, and anyone with an aversion to violence should stay away. There is lots of death in this movie, mostly from gunplay when Gotham degenerates into mob rule overseen by Bane. Several times Bane snaps people’s necks, though thankfully the camera cuts before he does it so it’s off-screen.

 

More than the physical violence is the psychological violence. Bane is cruel and hateful. He wants to torture Bruce Wayne before killing him because Bruce killed Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. (it’s an admittedly long plot arc) Wayne spends significant time in a prison pit they call “Hell” while watching Gotham under siege on a TV that Bane puts there. Wealthy people are made to walk across thin ice to their own death as a form of punishment during mob rule in Gotham.

 

This is also the first Dark Knight movie where we actually see Bruce Wayne have a liaison with a woman. It’s not done too terribly (Nolan cut the scene just right), but it was only hinted at in previous movies. As a redeeming feature, I felt that the way that Catwoman was presented was not ridiculously sensual, though she definitely showed off her curves in her cat burglar suits.

 

On a slightly more “who cares” note, if you’re a gun-lover this movie will drive you nuts in parts. Just about everyone who touches a gun does something stupid with it at some point in the movie, and weapons-use and handling is ridiculous in points.  When Gotham’s cops march down the street toward a gang of Bane’s thugs holding automatic weapons, the fight should have been over in a hail of bullets. Instead they all close and have a fistfight brawl that looked like it was choreographed by the writers of West Side Story.

 

Finally, a portion of the dialog is really hard to understand. Even in the theater with a quiet crowd there were several lines that I missed because they were garbled or too quiet.

 

Conclusion

 

Like I said before, if you are a Dark Knight fan then you’ve got to see this movie. If you are a comic book fan it is a good one, too. That said, the downsides to me keep this from being a kids movie. I would definitely say that it could easily have earned an R rating, so be careful taking your kids to see it. 15 would be the minimum I would consider, personally. And even for adults, if you’re sensitive to violence or psychological violence this is one to probably skip.

A Dose of Courage

Laura and I went to see the movie “Courageous” on Sunday with some of our best friends.  Here’s the trailer.

All I have to say is wow.  Alex and Stephen Kendrick did a great job on this movie.  It is quite apparent that with all the money they made on “Fireproof,” the directors took some of it and bought the cast some acting lessons! Smile Laura and I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and quite literally gave it an ovation at the end.

At its’ heart, “Courageous” is a movie about 4 guys (3 of them cops in a small southern town) trying to figure out how to be good dads and honor God in the process.  It isn’t smarmy or too cliché, but the message comes through loud and clear.

The Good:

This movie is filled with good.  The  main characters honor God.  They strive after Him and clearly, the theme is that fatherhood is vitally important in the lives of our children.  I teared up several times.  The moral message is pitch perfect.

I also really liked that the movie didn’t hit the “Jesus angle” too hard or too directly, though the Gospel was pretty clearly presented in the course of the movie.  I would feel quite comfortable bringing friends who aren’t Christians to it, and it is a must for church men’s groups for sure.

I also loved the humor.  This movie was a bit of a tear jerker, and it would have been tough to watch without some humor.  The humor in this movie is just amazing.  It’s not, “Ha ha” funny in places; it’s “holy cow that is stinkin’ hilarious” funny in all the right places.  The laughter breaks up the serious message just enough that you don’t feel like you’re being browbeaten, and that is very helpful in this movie.

I love the way that this movie deals with tragedy and grief.  The pastor gives some of the best advice that I have ever heard on screen to a grieving man, and that came through loud and clear.

The Bad:

Really, it’s hard to nitpick.  As a gun nut firearms instructor I thought that their portrayal of tactics was suspect, but my friend who is a policeman told me that it was pretty accurate for rural forces in the south.  Okay, but I would have filmed the sequences of police work differently.  It didn’t ruin the movie, but it made me shake my head a little.

I guess I also felt like all the loose ends were tied up a little too conveniently and neatly at the end.  Everything worked out great, even though (without spoiling it) there is one letdown.  That said, God wins and the dudes love their sons and all is well.  It’s a bit tidy.

The Verdict:

Go see this movie.  You will be glad you did.  It was well written, well acted, and fun to watch.  It made me want to be a better dad.  It was a great date with my wife, and I think that every church in America should promote it!

A Long (but good) Commercial

I am all about the comic book movies, so for Mother’s Day Laura and I went to see “Thor.”  Watch the trailer if you’ve not seen it already, and you’ll see that it is pretty typical superhero fare.

Rule #1 of superhero movies: don’t expect them to be incredible stories that change your view of the world.  Instead, if you expect them to be good “popcorn munchers” with lots of CGI and things exploding and dudes with hulking muscles you’ll enjoy the ride.

This is precisely what Thor is.  It’s a long commercial for “The Avengers” that is coming out next year.  That said, if your expectations are set appropriately it can be a fun afternoon at the movies.

Basic plot: Thor is the son of Odin, the king of a far off planet of beings with special powers.  They appeared to humans in primitive (in this case Norse) times who worshipped them as gods.  They keep peace in the galaxy.  Thor is vain and arrogant, so Odin banishes him to earth to learn some humility and who he really is.  (that’s the synopsis without any spoilers…)

The good:

The moral message of this movie is really solid.  Thor is the prototypical “rich kid jock” whose dad is the king and who has it all.  He is strong and sure of himself, but through a series of events is shown to be arrogant and not fit to be a king.  The rest of the movie involves Thor growing into a character who is a servant leader who puts others ahead of himself, which is a great message for people.

Secondly, the romantic interest in the movie is played by Natalie Portman.  Now, Portman has made a name for herself with sexually charged roles and scenes (link is SFW and SFK but has a link in it that may not be; I wouldn’t click that…).  In Thor, however, the romantic interest is very, very tame.  Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth, who is a handsome devil) kisses Jane Foster on the hand a couple of times, and they do have a kiss near the end that is very tame by modern standards. 

As expected, the CGI is good.  Asgard looks cool, and the characters are neat to look at.  Anthony Hopkins turns in a pretty good performance as Odin, too.  And Idris Elba is awesome as Heimdall.

The Bad:

Really, the “bad” isn’t bad, it’s just a little lame.  The big battle on earth is between Thor and a big, animated suit of armor.  That shoots fireballs out of its face.  Laaaaame.

The plot is really predictable, with Thor being banished to earth and the hijinks of a “god” being among mortals are played out.  (Thor never claims godhood) The epic last battle is predictable.

The goofy:

Can you say Mjölnir ten times fast?

In my opinion, Chris Helmsworth HAD to be CGI when he had his shirt off.  Either that, or I need to start taking steroids. Smile (I kid, I kid…)

The verdict:

This was a fun movie with a good message and little that is bad.  In fact, Laura and I are going to take our two oldest kids (ages 14 and 11) to see it when it gets to the cheap theater.  That says a lot, because we are pretty careful with our kids and movies.  So if you’re looking for a clean, fun, not-very-plot-heavy way to spend an afternoon, this is a good way to do it.

Adjusting to “The Adjustment Bureau”

First off: I have a man crush on Matt Damon.  Pretty much anything he acts in, I love.  So when Laura asked if I wanted to see “The Adjustment Bureau,” I was all ears. 🙂  The official trailer gives the basic synopsis of the point of the movie:

So yeah, it’s a Matt Damon movie about predestination and free will.  If you go into the movie expecting it to be a human interest story about finding true love, with some cool chase scenes and some suspenseful intrigue you will likely love it.  I sure did.  If instead you go into it for theological insight and to solve the problem of predestination and free will, you will be all frustrated and unfulfilled.  Then again, if you go to movies to solve those kinds of problems you’re almost certainly frustrated and unfulfilled anyway.

The Good:

I love Matt Damon.  He plays the role of the “loose cannon” politician very well. 

The plot in the movie was not so complicated that it can’t be followed.  There are a few twists and turns, but not so badly that we were left in the dark. 

In the beginning of the movie my Calvinist friends will love when one of the higher-up agents, Thompson, tells Damon’s character that free will is an illusion.  But then my Arminian friends will huzzah when they are told that Thompson was wrong.  Unfortunately Open Theists will cheer at the end of the movie. 

The love story about finding “the one” was compelling and intriguing.  It forces Damon’s character to choose between political greatness and true love, which is intriguing.  The funny part for Laura and I was how close the plot of this film came to our early lives.  I wanted to be the President of the United Stats, and she was well on her way to being a famous ballerina.  So a movie about fate in the lives of an up-and-coming politician and a professional ballerina, where their decision affects whether they will continue in their ambitions, was almost surreal to us.

The Bad:

Well the theology is all goofy.  The “god” of this movie ends up being a very pluralistic amorphous deity who bends to the will of the main characters.  And angels function more like “men in black” than divine messengers.  And the intersection of divine sovereignty and free will shifts around a lot in the movie and isn’t well-defined at any point.  (go read Kenneth Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty” for an accessible explanation of my basic position)
Second, there is premarital sex.  It wasn’t a huge deal, but they did show them in bed.  How bad was it?  Not sure; when the scene started I hid my eyes and smooched with my wife until it was over.
The Conclusion:

I liked this movie a lot.  We enjoyed the story and the pacing was enough to keep us engaged.  It wasn’t a theological home run, but if you chew the meat and spit the bones you should be able to enjoy a great movie.