Movie Review: The River Thief

I love everything N. D. Wilson. I’ve read all of his fiction books. So when I heard he was making a movie, I was (of course) super excited. THE RIVER THIEF does not disappoint. With beautiful, sweeping cinematography, well crafted and acted characters, and a story that packs a powerful punch, there’s nothing more I could ask from N. D. Wilson’s screen debut.

THE RIVER THIEF follows the story of Diz, a homeless, parent-less kid who takes what he likes when he wants it. He’s following a river through the countryside to find the town where his father is supposed to be. He doesn’t know whether he wants to meet his father or kill him, but when he crosses paths with a girl named Selah and her grandfather, his entire life changes.

I love how beautifully this film is shot. The sweeping landscape shots take my breath away, and the action is tight and controlled. No excessive shaky cam here! The acting is also very good. The film is actually a bit more mature than I expected. There is a fair amount of violence and some cussing, as well as some slight innuendo (a rather crazy, protective woman accuses a man of ‘touching her son inappropriately’. The man does nothing more than grab the boy by the collar, mistaking him for someone else. Also a girl says that she ‘can’t be bought and she isn’t a whore’ after a boy gives her a bunch of gifts trying to get her attention.) I’d give it a PG-13 rating.

The story is very powerful and emotional, and I caught myself getting a bit choked up at the end! Overall, I am blown away. This is unlike any Christian film I have ever seen. A wonderful movie for teens and adults alike. Five Stars!

Magic. Mysticism. Message? Exposing the Christian Imagery of Doctor Strange

I’ll make no secret of it: I am a die-hard Marvel Cinematic Universe fan. So when Movieguide gave Marvel’s latest flick, Doctor Strange, a negative four in their review (which, in Movieguide-speak equals irredeemably bad/un-Christian) I had to raise an eyebrow. Movieguide is an amazing service, rating movies based not only on their quality but their morality. When you’re trying to be a discerning Christian moviegoer, this is super helpful. But sometimes, especially when looking at worldview, they can go a bit too far. This happened to me once before with a film called Tomorrow Land, which I ended up loving for precisely the reasons that Movieguide condemned it (I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. Read more about that in part of this post here). So my dad and I went to see the Doctor anyway, deciding to take it with a grain of salt.

I was completely shocked by this film, and for all the right reasons. Stunning visuals, a strong story, powerful acting, and, surprisingly enough, wonderful Christian imagery that Movieguide seems to have missed entirely. It’s time to look beneath the magic and discover some of the real messages of Doctor Strange. WARNING: Lots and lots of spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched the movie, I recommend you go do that before continuing. It’ll be worth it. Hopefully. If I do my job right.

Doctor Steven Strange is an arrogant, wealthy neurosurgeon with more fancy watches than are really necessary and a penthouse apartment that Tony Stark would be proud of. When his hands are rendered almost useless by a horrible car accident, he loses the center of his life and everything he does: his career. He tries everything possible to get the use of his hands back, but every one of his seven procedures fail. He is left completely hopeless, until he discovers a man who was permanently paralyzed, and then suddenly was able to walk again. Steven follows the man’s clues to a strange building in Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One, a woman who has the power to bend time and space, and stay young for thousands of years. Steven must humble himself and learn these powers to ultimately confront Dormammu, a Satan-like being who seeks to conquer the multiverse and torture its inhabitants forever.

There is a strand of humility running through this entire movie, and it’s something I picked up on right away. While Movieguide touched on it very briefly, I see this idea as a very central one to the story, and to the message. Steven Strange starts off as an extraordinarily self-centered man. His greatest pride is his perfect track record. He won’t take a case if its ‘not treatable’, or the procedure will certainly fail. He would never do anything to ruin his reputation. He is the opposite of humble. But the injury of his hands pulls him down from his high tower. Suddenly, he can do nothing. He has lost his career, which meant everything to him. He has become obsolete. At first he tries every procedure he can, grasping for anything which might return him to his previous life. But nothing can help him.

That is, until he meets the Ancient One. Life has tried to bring him low, but he is still holding on to his pride. It is all he has. The Ancient One sees this, and knows he must become humbler still before she can help him.

Humility is despised in our culture. It is often connected with a Uriah Heap-like attitude, where we are ‘umble, sir, so very ‘umble, and pretend that we are worthless and grovel and scrape before everyone else in a way which only brings more attention to us. This kind of humility is a breed of egotism: we are worse than everyone else, and therefore better for admitting it, and we are the center of attention with all our bowing and scraping and ‘umbleness. The Christian kind of humility is a recognition that we are not in control, that we are not little gods. Steven Strange has an unconscious idea that he is the little god of his world, that he could, if he tried, really do anything. But he is pulled out of that fanciful throne by real life, and the brought lower still, until he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the world because he knows that he is not, and never was, the real Number One.

It is this sacrifice which reveals itself to me as true Christian imagery, as Steven confronts Dormammu, really something like the Devil, and just as terrifying and ruthless, and offers himself over and over to keep this monster from destroying the world. He wins in the end, of course, but he has undergone a great journey to come to the point where he ever could win. The Steven Strange at the beginning of the movie could not have defeated this Devil, not even with all the relics and magic in the world. He needed to be humble, and to be willing to sacrifice himself, to beat the bad guy.

Jesus was the most humble of all. He was God, but sank to the level of man and sacrificed himself to defeat the Devil. Yes, there is the magic and the mystical and the fantastical, but there is a parallel between Jesus’ story and that of Steven Strange, if I may say so without offending anyone’s sensibilities. And not only that, but Steven Strange also reflects the Christian life: we must be brought low and made humble in order to accept Jesus’ great gift to us. When we think we are on top of the world, we are sure that we need nothing but ourselves. But something, anything, may bring us to the realization that we are in need of something else.

I think that sometimes we do not look at the subtext. Doctor Strange is not a perfect film. There is not and never will be a ‘perfect’ film. It’s fun, fascinating, hilarious, magical. It’s got all the fantasy trimmings and beautiful images and tense plot that make a film fun to watch. It is not a precise, perfect allegory for the entire story of Jesus, or the entire Christian life. But last time I checked, no one said it had to be.

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

Why is it a thing that whenever Pixar makes a new movie, the trailer is always really stupid and the movie is (usually) pretty good? When I first saw the trailer for Pixar’s latest film, Finding Dory, all I could think was, ‘Ugh. That looks so dumb.’ I mean, Pixar seems to have decided to make a whole bunch of sequels to films that were made a really long time ago. I mean, its been almost fourteen years since Finding Nemo came out. Fourteen years? Wow, that makes me feel old…

I was perfectly fine to ignore this movie and not go, but came out with a review, praising it as “the best family film in several years”, and my dad was already taking my siblings to see it, so I decided to tag along and find out if Finding Dory really warranted this lofty praise. I must say that Pixar certainly hasn’t gotten any worse at telling a good story and although there was some questions about the film featuring a lesbian couple (due to a shot in the trailer which seemed to connect two women with one baby carriage) the moment in the film is so insignificant that I’m not even sure how people could have made anything out of it. Finding Dory is certainly family friendly, unlike some other ‘kids’ movies released recently (cough, cough, the Angry Birds Movie, cough, cough), but I don’t really think it quite lives up to its predecessor. The story just isn’t as powerful as Finding Nemo. However, there are interesting new characters and laughter galore, and I’m happy to say that, although its something I’d probably only watch once, it is a fun, wonderful film fit for the entire family.

Movie Review: Captain America Civil War

We sat there, in the dark, perhaps a hundred or so people crammed into the room, clutching popcorn and drinks, silent except for the few excited whispers and anticipatory giggles. A hundred people, jolted out of their world of cell phones and personal devices, about to be immersed, together, in an emotionally wrenching experience.

As a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course I was excited to be seeing the new Captain America movie at our little town theater. I was expecting jokes and fights and a climatic faceoff between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, still not exactly sure why they were fighting, but really sure it was going to be cool. To tell the truth, I was expecting the clash of the heroes to be the real thing everyone was there for, the real reason for the film, not really knowing if there was going to be a truly credible reason for the Avengers to split up and battle each other, wondering which side was going to be painted as the villain, and who painted as the victim.

But the people at Marvel always seem to be one step ahead. After a cryptic prologue, we’re dropped into a cityscape, watching as the Avengers, undercover, try to thwart a terrorist attack. Things go wrong, of course, and one superhero is unable to control their powers, destroying a still-inhabited apartment building. This is what sets off the civil war, as the Avengers become divided over the issue of safety, and whether or not they should continue to operate without supervision. Iron Man fears that without legislation, the Avengers would be too powerful, and harm more people, but Captain America fears the opposite, that they might not be able to save people if they are under tight legal constraint. Add to the mix the fact that Cap’s old friend Bucky, who was once the assassin Winter Soldier, is suspected of instigating the terrorist attack, and Team Iron Man want to bring him in. And so begins a civil war of epic, or, if I may, marvelous proportions, with all the twists, turns, conflict and humor we’ve come to expect of a Marvel film thrown in.

Watching the film, there, with people I don’t know, laughing, gasping, sharing silence, disconnected from our own little personal, divisive devices, was something communal, something we all shared. All watching the same story masterfully played out on that big, communal screen, each drawing our own conclusions, finding our own hidden messages, feeling our own pain, cheering on our own heroes, calling for them to get up when they fall. I don’t know how you feel about watching a movie in a theater, but it gives me a feeling of connections, of community, not just with the people sitting next to me, but even those across the country, or the world, who may be watching. And not just watching passively, like they might when they get the movie on DVD in a few months and stick it in their computers and sit and watch it alone, but engaged, laughing at the jokes, hurting when a hero falls, imaging those bullets punching through their skin, wondering if they’d be strong enough to take it, strong enough to handle great power, and the great responsibility that entails. They can identify with these heroes. Perhaps it is only I who think about these things, but I really hope it isn’t.

And that is why I am so glad that Iron Man is not just a complete and utter stuck up, arrogant, narcissistic idiot, and Cap is not the perfect, all-American, admirable and flawless hero. Both of them make mistakes, and both will make more. There is bad on both sides, and a little good, too. There is heartache, and sadness, and humor, and loss, all the ingredients of good entertainment, which can be taken home and unpacked and thought about and discussed.  And though we may never know who was completely right, and who completely wrong, I rest assured that Marvel has once again brought real conflicts, real issues, real stories, real pain, and real people to the big screen in a great, and, if I may say so, a superhuman way.