Most Anticipated Summer Films

2013

There will be no topping 2012’s host of powerhouse films anytime soon, but 2013 has its own collection of promising offerings. Let’s take a look at some of the most anticipated movies for Summer 2013.

Oblivion

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the man behind Tron: LegacyOblivion promises an intriguing premise, powerful visuals, suspense, twists, and plenty of futuristic action. The studio executives even said that Oblivion was one of the best scripts they had ever seen.

Release Date: April 19

Iron Man 3

After a less-than-stellar Iron Man 2, the follow-up to the blockbuster smash success Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. and the gang are hoping to ride the wave that The Avengers started. It looks like we’re getting lots of sparks between Tony Stark and Pepper Pots and, in addition to that delightful duo, the cast will include Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and Ben Kingsley, all excellent actors in their own right. Iron Man 3 promises to take Tony Stark to the limit, but one thing’s for sure: this won’t be Iron Man’s last adventure.

Release Date: May 3

The Great Gatsby

With a powerhouse cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Joel Edgerton and a fresh spin on the meaning of period piece, it looks like this could be a great movie that might not show it at the box office. For those of us who haven’t read the book, the trailer doesn’t provide a clear, compelling plot, and even more perplexing is that it was pushed back from a late December 2012 release (where it would have had trouble competing with Django Unchained and Les Miserables), and is now sandwiched between some of the biggest blockbusters of 2013. Director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) reunites with DiCaprio (Romeo + Juliet) in what looks to be a fascinating adaption.

Release Date: May 10

Star Trek: Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams has already mastered the art of making fun, yet ridiculously intense and suspenseful, action movies. It looks as if Star Trek Into Darkness could be as frenetic as anything we’ve seen from him, and the much-talked about villain (played by Benedict Cumberpatch, of Sherlock fame) seems ever-more terrifying with the posting of each new trailer. Chris Pine (Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (Spock) return, along with the rest of the Enterprise gang in this sequel to 2009’s reboot of the storied franchise.

Release Date: May 17

The Hangover: Part III

They’re back and as smashed as ever.

Release Date: May 24

Now You See Me

This looks like The Prestige meets Inception, (minus Christopher Nolan’s cinematic flair), and even includes Michael Caine, alongside Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Mark Ruffalo. Promises lots of twists and fun. Count me in.

Release Date: May 31

After Earth

After a few disasters, M. Night Shayamalan returns with a film that seems to be a world apart from his suspense-thrillers of old. Will Smith and his son Jayden star in the summer’s other futuristic film set on an Earth that is devoid of human civilization. Killer creatures and abnormal weather conditions look to push the father-son survival narrative. Thematically, it looks to be something like The Happening. Let’s hope that doesn’t overshadow what could be a compelling film.

Release Date: June 7

Man of Steel

The Superman saga has been struggling to find a way to connect with audiences. It took producer Christopher Nolan’s mind and director Zachary Snyder’s vision to deliver what looks to be as epic and compelling a superhero film we have ever seen. The cinematography is masterful. The writing (script by David S. Goyer of Batman Begins fame) seems to capture the weight of this origins story, starring Henry Carvill as Clark. Add Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne, and I think we can go ahead and guarantee that this will be a great film, perhaps even groundbreaking in the superhero genre.

Release Date: June 14

Monsters University

It’s been 12 years since the original Monsters Inc., but with Toy Story 3, we found out that animated sequels made many years after the originals can still be successful both in terms of box office and quality. It may be an uphill battle to top the emotion of Toy Story 3, but Monsters University should find a wide audience across all age groups.

Release Date: June 21

World War Z

There can never be enough zombie movies, right? World War Z looks it could be a solid entry into the genre, with zombies of the fast-moving and havoc-wreaking variety. From director Marc Forster, whose work ranges from Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction to Quantum of Solace and Machine Gun Preacher. 

Release Date: June 21

Despicable Me 2

Gru, the girls, and Minions are back in this follow-up to the 2009 film. Steve Carell returns, in addition to a fresh plot, and plenty more of the cute humor. So far, so good!

Release Date: July 3

Lone Ranger

An adaptation of the classic radio drama, Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the CaribbeanRango), producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and Johnny Depp reunite once again, enlisting Armie Hammer and Helen Bonham Carter in what looks to be in the same vein as the Pirate movies: Action-packed, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Lone Ranger is unlikely to produce the kind of smash-hit success that Pirates generated, but don’t be surprised to see sequels if it scores strongly at the international box office.

Release Date: July 3

Pacific Rim

Transformers meets Cloverfield? Voltron vs Godzilla? Hey, with Gueillermo del Toro directing, why not?

Release Date: July 12

The Wolverine

Hugh Jackman returns as Logan/The Wolverine in James Mangold’s (Walk The Line, 3:10 to Yuma) version of the most-recognizable X-Men character. This time, it seems that Logan’s encounter with an old friend puts his immortality on the line. Set in Japan.

Release Date: July 26

Which film are you looking forward to most this summer?

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Top 10 Films of 2012

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In the year 2012, the record for total box office receipts in a year was broken, and for good reason. The year was packed with exciting new entries in tried-and-true  franchises (The Hobbit, The Dark Knight Rises), surprising originals (Looper, Django Unchained), and quality adaptations (Les Miserables, Hunger Games). In case you are interested in checking out a particular film, here’s a look back at some of my personal favorites from the year. Included: Box office grosses and the percentage of critics who gave the film a positive rating, courtesy of rottentomatoes.com.

Honorable Mentions

Argo

Ben Affleck brings to life the incredible true events surrounding the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, involving an unlikely partnership between members of Hollywood and the CIA. While keeping the atmosphere thick with suspense, there is still a surprising amount of humor that keeps the narrative enjoyable even in the life-and-death circumstances. Argo is an entertaining, finely-crafted, and historically relevant thriller.   Box Office: $128 million | Critics: 96%

Sinister

Although not as soul-searching or scary as his previous entry in the genre The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Scott Derickson’s Sinister is nonetheless one of the smarter and more unique supernatural thrillers I have ever seen. A terrifying and well-crafted horror thriller. Box Office: $48 million | Critics: 62%

Life of Pi

This spectacular masterpiece is quite possibly the most visually dazzling movie I’ve seen. The tiger alone (yeah, that’s all digital) beats anything in Avatar hands-down. The visual magnificence is only rivaled by the beauty of the deeply spiritual themes. Life of Pi leaves the viewer in awe of both nature and the human spirit. Box Office: $112 million | Critics: 88%

 Looper

Gritty. Disorienting. Electrifying. Looper is a mind-bending thriller involving time travel, but leave all preconceptions about the genre behind. Writer/Director Rian Johnson teams up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the first time since Johnson’s debut (Brick), and the result is nothing short of awesome excellence. Gordon-Levitt is tasked with playing a younger version of Bruce Willis’ character, incorporating a plethora of the film legend’s idiosyncrasies and subtle characteristics. It lacks the narrative and thematic complexity of Nolan’s work, but there are comparable elements involved. Although Looper may have only seen modest success at the box office, it is sure to maintain a profitable run via at-home viewing. Box Office: $66 million | Critics: 94%


Lawless

Violent and emotional, Lawless features a star-studded cast with Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman both lighting up the screen, and Shia Lebeauf puts forth possibly his finest work to date. Guy Pearce steals the show as a bitterly arrogant and prideful Chicago detective bent on the elimination of the three brothers who run a moonshine-running criminal enterprise. Based on a true story, director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) brings to life a little-known aspect of American history. Box Office: $37 million | Critics: 67%

Hope Springs

As awkward (honest? mature?) as the movie is, I found it to be powerful and a special kind of love story in a grown-up relationship. Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep are both brilliant, and the writing is great. I’m not sure that I can really recommend it to anybody, but it is nonetheless a good film. Box Office: $63 million | Critics: 74%

The Amazing Spider-Man

Action-packed but character-driven, this reboot is without a doubt the best of the franchise. Andrew Garfield, who is one of the most promising talents in Hollywood, displays amazing chemistry opposite Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey. As much a romantic-comedy as it is a superhero movie, The Amazing Spider-Man was the first Spider-Man movie that connected with me on an emotional level, bolstered by Andrew Garfield’s ambitious and completely engrossing portrayal of Peter Parker. Marc Webb directs the heroic web-slinger in his first film since the innovative romantic drama (500) Days of Summer. I believe he was the perfect choice to take the helm for the series. Some say it’s too soon for a reboot. I say that this movie couldn’t have arrived soon enough. Box Office: $262 million | Critics: 73%

10. Chronicle

When I first read the logline for Chronicle (“After finding a mysterious cave, three teenagers discover they have superpowers…”), I assumed it would be terrible. Then came the trailers, and I realized it looked really cool, with the found-footage gimmick, but still edgy and unique. Then I bought a ticket, and I realized that its tight script, powerful performances, effective and fun special effects, as well as the tragic psychological and philosophical themes, made it one of the best films of the year.

As a natural function of the story, the characters’ telekinesis allows them to float the camera, allowing for surprisingly epic and cinematic shots, contributing to the transcendent themes and tragic plot. Chronicle features a break-out performance from Dane DeHaan, who also received small roles in Lincoln and Lawless, and has now been cast in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as Harry Osborn. Within the hit-or-miss found-footage genre, Chronicle is a standout of originality, packed with action, gripping suspense, and a surprising amount of heart. Box Office: $65 million | Critics: 86%

9. Skyfall

After a lengthy absence, thanks to MGM’s bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring, Bond is finally back and better than ever. The follow-up to the mostly flat Quantum of Solace is full of spectacle, action, suspense, and more than few twists. Skyfall joins Casino Royale as Bond films that succeed in fleshing out the James Bond character, provoking the viewer to care about the guy, and not just the girls and guns.

The film even takes a stab at Bond’s childhood and thus the character’s psychology, tying his relationship with M to the motivations of the villain. Speaking of which, the villain is one of the strongest in the entire franchise, played masterfully by Javier Borden. Daniel Craig again brings a modern sensibility to his character, trending on the side of gritty, arrogant, and focused. Skyfall also introduces some old Bond characters. Rumor has it that the producers want to sign Craig to several more films, and why not? Skyfall was the first Bond film to gross over $1 billion worldwide.

Skyfall boasts arguably the best cinematography, action, and acting of any Bond yet, and by far the best spy thriller in years. Box Office: $304 million | Critics: 92%

8. Silver Linings Playbook

With nearly every character being a little bit mentally unstable, how could this movie not be a fun, messy, emotional, intense ride? Brilliantly written and executed with enthusiastic flair by its leads, notably Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DiNero, and Bradley Cooper (in that order), Silver Linings Playbook boldly challenges us to confront the crazy in all of us. Box Office: $103 million | Critics: 92%

7. The Grey

What looked to be a pretty straight-forward survivalist movie featuring man versus wolves is actually a deeply-philosophical and thoughtful film about death, but don’t let that scare you. The Grey has all the bone-chilling suspense and action one could possibly hope for, plus one of Liam Neeson’s better performances. Epic and intense. Not only does it have nerve and brawn, but it has heart too.  Box Office: $52 million | Critics: 79%

6. Zero Dark Thirty


When I first learned that the current administration was handing over top secret documents to Hollywood producers, I cringed. Thankfully, Zero Dark Thirty stays clear of any clear political messages, and to dwell on any outside political controversies would be a dishonor to the film itself.

Zero Dark Thirty is impressive, not just for its gritty realism and fearlessness, but also for its restraint. Every frame is electric with the feeling that this, or something pretty close to this, actually happened. The reality of the War on Terror and the people fighting it, on the ground and behind the computer monitors, dedicating their minds and lives, is brought to terrifying reality.

Zero Dark Thirty is both intelligently and sensitively written, directed, edited, and acted, with plenty of violence and suspense, worthy of “the greatest manhunt in American history” (and all in impressive short order given how recently the events happened). But this film transcends all that, because it is a story about America. About us. It’s about the exhausting struggle to deliver justice to an evil we can hardly understand. It’s about the fight for meaning in the midst of death and terror. It’s about the search for our very identity as a nation and a people. Because, just like Maya, after the deed is done and the Devil is defeated, we’re left wondering so many things about both our enemy and about ourselves.

With nary a word of dialogue laced with any sort of political undertones, Zero Dark Thirty lets the audience ask and answer its own questions about this pivotal moment in American history. Box Office: $90 million | Critics: 94%

5. Prometheus

Elevated by brilliant cinematography and awe-inspiring visuals, Prometheus is a masterpiece of spectacle and terror. It is the anti-Avatar with its barren landscapes and cynical tone. It is as thought-provoking as it is horrifying. Noomi Rapace gives a completely engrossing performance as Doctor Shaw, the film’s heroine, and Michael Fassbender nearly steals the show as a devilishly enigmatic android named David. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce lend star credence to the cast, offering haunting portrayals of their own.

But what struck me, even more than the plot of the movie and the new possibilities it opened, was the questions the film posed, as well as the mythological and spiritual undertones. Regardless of what you believe, this movie will make you think. What do you believe? Do you have your answers? Are your answers reliable? A film that poses these questions in such a powerful way is a very good film indeed. Box Office: $126 million | Critics: 73%

4. Django Unchained

I have to admit, I went into this one with high expectations, but Quentin Tarantino blew them to smithereens with this disturbing, provocative, suspenseful, and hilarious masterpiece. As you’ve probably heard, the film is an homage to old Spaghetti Westerns, injecting scenes showcasing the serious brutality of slavery in 19th century America in between the exploding heads and splattering of blood and guts.

However, what makes it a true masterpiece are the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson, who execute Tarantino’s crafty, clever script to perfection. Jackson reminded me that he is still a great actor, and Christoph Waltz is delightfully amusing as the bounty hunter, but it is DiCaprio who lights the screen on fire, as has become his custom. As the villainous slaveowner Calvin Candie, DiCaprio’s transformation is shocking and outright genius, pivoting between grinning, Southern-accented wit, and sadistic, murderous rage with a dash of insanity. DiCaprio deserved an Oscar for creating and inhabiting such a brilliant character, once again proving that he is the best working actor in Hollywood.

Irreverent, sly, and offensive, Django Unchained is easily one of the most satisfying revenge flicks of all time. Box Office: $158 million | Critics: 89%

3. Les Miserables

Engrossing, emotional, exhilarating.  Les Miserables is a musical done right; instead of jumping joltingly between spoken dialogue and song, Les Miz is almost completely musical. Much was made about the live performances of the actors, and for good reason, because film musicals are traditionally looped with pre-recorded performances from the actors; the “live” nature of the performances connects it to the theater in a way that lends it a strange degree of realism. Hugh Jackman holds the film together, and Anne Hathaway’s performance is every bit as good as the hype.

The intimate cinematography encourages the viewer to soak in every note and feel every emotion, as the power of the story envelopes. I truly felt like I had been swept up into a place that pitted the greatest forces of life against each other: justice versus mercy, legalism versus love, and the despair of past sins versus the hope of redemption. The symbolism is so powerful, that you may even be moved to tears, as I was, and perhaps even on multiple occasions.

Box Office: $146 million | Critics: 70%

2. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg has fashioned a film of tremendous historical import and timeless, masterful artistry. Lincoln envelopes the viewer in the story with its density of pertinent plot points, meaningful imagery, emotional performances, and incredible attention to detail as a legitimate period piece depicting the final months of the life President Lincoln and his political battle to both end slavery and end the Civil War.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln truly mesmerizes the viewer. Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York) is so convincing and riveting as the most beloved political figure in American history, that it is hard not to be completely enraptured by his authentic, layered, and moving portrayal of the often melancholy, introspective, self-deprecating, somewhat peculiar, thoroughly human, yet passionate and attention-commanding figure. He should be a shoo-in for Best Actor at the Oscars. Tommy Lee Jones is also outstanding as the cantankerous, sincere, and passionate abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens.

Lincoln celebrates and honors a legendary and heroic man who is loved and revered, perhaps more than any other American historical figure. The film is worthy of the man it depicts. Box Office: $178 million | Critics: 91%

1. The Dark Knight Rises

Brazen, brutal, and breath-stealing, the final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s genre-busting saga is as enlightening as it is electrifying. The Dark Knight Rises ties the first two parts of the trilogy to the finale in seamless fashion. Tom Hardy is ferocious and terrorizing as Bane, who has both the brains and the brawn to match Batman, pound-for-pound, and then some. As a merciless anarchist bent on Gotham’s total destruction, Bane pulls no punches and spares no one if he can help it. When he and Batman finally face off, the combat and violence are escalated to bone-rattling levels. Every scene sizzles with suspense and uncertainty.

Even if people believe that this movie isn’t as good as The Dark Knight, there is no denying that it is a truly great movie in its own right, independent of its predecessor. Its epic themes, immersive performances, and mind-bending plot turns are on the same level as The Dark Knight and, in my opinion, go beyond that movie. The Dark Knight was a crime drama, but this movie takes that to the next level as an epic, echoing the themes of A Tale of Two Cities as well as Greek and Roman mythology. Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan, (who helped write Memento, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight), authored the first 400-page screenplay for the movie and deserves tremendous credit for the risks he takes and for the scope he brought to the table. Critics are calling it the best post-9/11 film, because of its real-world atmosphere and themes that are grounded in today’s defining issues.

Christopher Nolan said that he wanted to “honestly reflect the world we live in,” and it does just that, but it goes a step beyond that: it issues a challenge. It’s a challenge for America and perhaps the world in these times of uncertain, if not outright desperate, economic and political trends. It’s a challenge to be a hero to ourselves, to our friends and family, and to our world. A challenge to fight. To believe… To rise. Box Office: $448 million | Critics: 87%

Top 5 Albums of 2012

The following is a list of my five favorite albums of 2012. I have provided links to one song for each album for you to listen as you read. I highly recommend each of these albums. The following unprofessional opinions are merely my own.

5. “Matt & Toby”

4 stars out of 5

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Hardcore rock band Emery, known for its unique beats and breakdowns, surprised its fan base when they announced they would be releasing not one but two albums in 2012, one acoustic and one with its traditional hardcore style. Although Emery pushed its next LP to 2013, two of its members teamed up to record a project that shows off their ability to create stripped down but catchy ballads.

Both Matt and Toby have amazing voices and harmonies that have previously been weaved into the screamo anthems of Emery. Their self-titled first album is a unique collection of songs that are at times nostalgic, thought-provoking, and uniquely arranged. Most of the songs on the backend of the album are decidedly Christian, and still others tell stories of heartbreak, whether it be the death of a spouse, or the more traditional romantic breakups.

“Life of the Party” is a ridiculously catchy, very nostalgic anthem that shows off the pair’s vocal range (minus outright screaming), layered with “whoa”s and background sounds. “What Plays in My Head” is a heart-wrenching tale of a man losing his wife in a car crash and the aftermath. “Good Boys” features some electronic elements, while “Lord, Take Me in Your Hands” and “The Last One” are notably strong tracks written from a Christian’s perspective.

Bottomline: This debut album from Matt and Toby of Emery is a solid release, complete with catchy harmonies and heartfelt lyrics, leaving the listener craving more.

3978966746-14. “Phoenix” by The Classic Crime

4 stars out of 5

Following the release of their third full-length album “Vagabonds,” alternative rock band The Classic Crime decided to cut ties with their label Tooth & Nail and produce their fourth LP independently. Using the Kickstarter website, they set a goal of raising $30,000 over a period of 30 days in order to produce and distribute “Phoenix” in hopes that they would still be able to make music. Within 24 hours, The Classic Crime fanbase had supplied the band the funds they needed, and the band set out to craft their most epic album to date. They didn’t disappoint.

“Phoenix” is a grandiose 13-track, 53-minute epic journey through gritty guitar riffs, soaring full-band chants, and even a dash of electronic and orchestral elements that help contribute to the album’s daring feel. Though there is a certain amount of plodding along through the first half of the album, “Let Me Die” kicks the second half into high gear, aptly realizing the idea of rising from the ashes of apathy, declaring “So I’ll go pressing on through the wind and the waves. If I drown, let me go so that you can be saved. It don’t matter if people remember my name. I have lived, so let me die.”

The album is sharply crafted, with both its intro and outro tracks (“One Man Army” and “I Will Wait”) bracketing the project in its theme of rising above past failures and personal vices to live life as it was meant to be lived. Frontman Matt MacDonald admits, “I’ve been unalive, been sleeping for days in this comatose state. I’ve been unalive, prone to hide from the messes that I’ve made.”

“Glass Houses” quickly became a fan favorite with its epic chants, but “The Precipice” and “City of Orphans” are soul-searching offerings that help diversify the album and show off TCC’s acoustic, softer side, both wondering at the meaningless of living for oneself alone. Fans of “Albatross” will be pleased at the fast-paced nature of “Dead Rose,” “Young Again,” and “Painted Dreams,” all of which are solid and catchy rock anthems. “What I’d Give Up” is very autobiographical with its bold declaration from MacDonald: “I don’t need it anymore! All I want to do is build a home, because you’ve got my heart and my soul!”

Bottomline: Though not as exciting as “Albatross” and nowhere near the masterpiece that is “The Silver Cord,” “Phoenix” is nevertheless more focused and satisfying than “Vagabonds.” Any release by The Classic Crime is a good one, and the success of “Phoenix” guarantees that they can continue to make music.

Owl-City-The-Midsummer-Station3. “The Midsummer Station” by Owl City

4.5 stars out of 5

Owl City’s Adam Young continues to push his sound into uncharted territory with a universe of synths, dynamic sounds, and mind-blowing beats that are a far cry from “Fireflies” and “Ocean Eyes.” With his previous album, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” Young showed that he was setting out to craft more upbeat songs that show off his vocal range and ability to craft ear candy sugar highs.

Now, with “The Midsummer Station,” Owl City has truly found its groove. Each song is an infectious, head-bobbing good time, a dance party in your ears. The hit song “Good Time” may actually be the weakest of  the album, especially lyrically, but you’ll ride the out-of-this-world sound waves through “Dreams and Disasters” at the “Speed of Love.”

The cascades of auditory sensations only intensifies with the incredibly catchy “I’m Coming After You,” and the inspirational pair “Shooting Star” and “Gold.” Adam Young is not afraid to try new things, and both “Embers” and “Dementia” feature guitar riffs that add to the epic rush of this album, only slowing down for the introspective “Silhouette.” However, my favorite track is “Metropolis” because of how it builds the epic sound and soaring romantic lyrics.

Bottomline: Whether this is Owl City’s best album to date is up for debate, but Adam Young’s music has definitely never been catchier, more polished, or more innovative. The poetic lyrics are still a treat for the mind’s eye and uplifting as ever. It’s a one-of-a-kind album, full of grand and exciting artistry.

1869783722-12. “Silver & Gold” by Sufjan Stevens

5 stars out of 5

Sufjan Stevens has always been an unusual musical talent. His sound is almost unexplainable. His first few albums, (most notably “Come on! Feel the Illinoise!”), were driven by his acoustic and lyrical brilliance, accented by trumpets, keys, and background choruses. This unpredictable style, that was injected into the 42-track, five-volume “Songs for Christmas” release, was abandoned for a more electronic, edgy style with the debut of “The Age of Adz.” Though some fans were disappointed in this choice, the possibilities for Stevens now seemed endless. He declared that he was abandoning traditional constructs of songs (the verse-chorus structure) and setting out for new musical territory.

So it comes as no surprise that Sufjan’s second Christmas release is even more expansive than his first. Volumes Six through Ten of his “Songs for Christmas” project includes 58 tracks, bringing the total number of Sufjan Stevens Christmas songs to 100. “Silver & Gold” cannot be properly explained with words alone, for it must be experienced. It includes trippy and convicting masterpieces like “The Christmas Unicorn,” and completely brilliant arrangements of Christmas classics. Sufjan’s version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is without a doubt my favorite rendition ever.

Bottomline: Likely to be the most unique, expansive collection of Christmas songs you will ever hear. If you are eager for different, or if you dig Sufjan’s no-rules style, you’ll love this 58-song masterpiece that includes impressive original offerings and fresh spins on Christmas favorites.

tumblr_mda8f3eOIS1r0hlkb1. “Able Bodies” by From Indian Lakes

4.5 stars out of 5

The sophomore effort from the indie/alternative From Indian Lakes is as honest, heart-wrenching, and soul-searching as their debut album “The Man with Wooden Legs.” The band is still not signed to a label, but that hasn’t stopped them from putting out some of the most poignant and pertinent music I’ve ever heard. “Able Bodies” continues to build on the band’s stripped-down, heart-on-their-sleeve, in-your-face style with bone-breaking drum beats and incredibly intricate guitar progressions, underscoring their sometimes erratic and remarkably unpredictable style.

Frontman Joey Vannucchi displays incredible vocal versatility, filling the space of a single song with whispers and screams, biting off lyrics with furious intensity in the high-energy “Below,” or belting out what might as well be a heart-stirring cry to Heaven in the live acoustic “Your Son.” Complex metaphorical language fills each song, obligating the listener to ponder each line of lyrics.

Like so many of the band’s songs, “We Are Sick” asks introspective questions couched in self-examination: “I walk around but I don’t breathe out. I stumble like a child and I fall to the ground. Will I be there for a long time? Did my thoughts only make me numb? Did I pretend to be normal, making sure I was keeping in line? Loving you was never hard to do, but I’m sick and they’re coming to get me soon.”

In songs like “Breaking My Bones,” the intensity of the vocals often correlates with the meaning of the lyrics. Vannucchi croons his way through the first verse, then unexpectedly screams out, “But I’ve been breaking my bones, breaking my bones, breaking my bones! And if I find another bone to break, I hope it’s only my own!  I feel love but it never shows and walls around me grow. My fingertips are callused but I’d never try to scale these walls again.”

“I Don’t Know You” slows down enough to give the listener a breather, admitting “The photographs I’ve taken only blur the faces out, and my mind can’t seem to hold onto anyone. If I hold my hand out to the people that I’ve met, do they hesitate to touch me? Is it all just in my head? I don’t think so, but i don’t think at all.” There are no weak links on the entire album. Each song is original and important, both lyrically and musically.

However, the final track of the album is truly a masterpiece. “Til I Can Walk” builds and builds, wondering “Have I suddenly decided my life is important, my love not so much? I meant to be lovely. I wanted to make the world proud. Where is my happy song? Where has my patience gone? Did they take it away or did I make it leave on my own?”

For better or worse “Able Bodies” is much more polished than their debut album, featuring more of Vannucchi’s distinctive crooning, some background vocals, and perhaps tighter, more radio-friendly tracks. There is no denying that “Able Bodies” is an enjoyable, gem-filled journey that exceeds expectations.

Bottomline: Thought-provoking and spiritually relevant, “Able Bodies” proves that From Indian Lakes is a force to be reckoned with, a staple of originality in the indie/rock vein.

Film and “The Most Meaningful Questions Ever Asked by Mankind”

The following is a thesis paper for my final project of a Cinema Aesthetics class at Regent University. WARNING: Some film clips contain brief strong language or strong violence. WARNING: Some plot details and spoilers of recent movies are included. The presentation itself, including clips from various films, can be viewed at the following link: http://prezi.com/2di27txcun53/films-and-the-big-questions/

While a film’s primary purpose must be to entertain its audience, the most effective films can provoke profound thought and conversation on life’s most meaningful questions. Questions like “Why were we made?” and “What is truth?” are often left with the walls of a church or university Philosophy classroom, but films are a unique and important means for the artistic filmmaker to communicate timeless themes. As an art form, movies have been and continue to be rooted to philosophical and religious ideas that every human ponders.

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The primary purpose for a film must always be that is entertaining as an art form, for this is the reason that an audience frequents the movie theater. However, the artist or the filmmaker, has a unique opportunity to encourage meaningful thought and discussion about fundamental questions, because the storm of the film puts these questions in a scenario with characters and circumstances that dramatize and realize the issue.

In this way, a film can potentially demonstrate how certain ideas play out as well as be more effective than a classroom setting within the walls of a church or university. “When a learner has an emotional reaction to new stimuli, lessons presented by that stimuli get remembered better over time” (Eifler). In fact, George Miller, a movie producer, even said, “The cinema storytellers have now become the new priests” (Jonston). Martin Scorsese echoed this sentiment when he said, “I can see great similarities between a church and a movie house” (Jonston).

“How were we made?”

sacrificial_engineer_prometheus2Regardless of the content of a movie, audience members are prone to reflect on it after a viewing. “Movies, like life itself, are first experienced and then reflected on” (Jonston). For example, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus poses questions on the origins of man and his purpose. These questions represent the primary motivations for the characters as they travel across the galaxy to search out a solar system they believe to be the home of alien life. The primary characters, an atheist scientist and a Christian scientist, are both determined to discover the truth of who created humans and for what purpose were they created. Later, a character calls the quest “a search to answer the most meaningful questions ever asked by man.”

The very climax of the movie is an attempt to get these questions answered. Although the conclusion to the movie seems to resonate with Agnostic sentiments, the film effectively explores the basics of these questions. In one scene between the two scientists, the atheist suggests that the Christian give up her faith in God since they had discovered proof of an alien species seeding life on Earth; rightfully, the Christian scientist points out that the alien species must have had a maker themselves, and the atheist concedes the point.

630-ridleyscott-jpg_193836The audience’s post-viewing reflection upon Prometheus will undoubtedly include musings upon these questions. Ridley Scott himself said, “I’m really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don’t care who you are, it’s what we all think about. It’s in the back of all our minds.” Above all else, the film promotes the conscious search for answers, presumably so that individuals can know what they believe and why. The very last line of the movie comes from the heroine when she says, “I’m still searching.” This is a very human sentiment that speaks to a person’s basic need to know one’s purpose.

“Is my reality real?”

inception-7As stated earlier, a film is unique in its ability to bring life to theological, philosophical, and academic issues involving truth and worldview. “Film and religion are deeply related activities in our contemporary culture. Both attempt to re-create the world and thereby offer us new ways of seeing, sensing, and experiencing life itself” (Plate). In fact, the film Inception takes this concept of re-creation quite literally, wherein characters are actually creating a dream world that leads characters to question “What is real?” In the dream world, Mal, who is a projection of Dom Cobb’s mind, asks Dom, “What if I’m what’s real? You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you feel?” Cobb’s answer continues this line of thought in which he explains his plot to give her the idea that “her world isn’t real.”

I believe that Inception is encouraging the audience to question what they believe, even to examine the difference between “knowledge” and “belief” in one’s own life. Indeed, the very last shot of the movie on the spinning top invites the question: “Is it real?” Dom Cobb believes he is with his children, but are they just projections in his own mind? Writer and director Christopher Nolan seems to be establishing that truth and reality do matter to people, and that it is important to question what we believe and “know.”

Writing with the assumption that Nolan was influenced by British philosopher Bernard Williams, Hibbs asserts, “Arguing that truth has an intrinsic value, and not merely an instrumental value, Bernard Williams writes that ‘If we lose a sense of the value of truth, we will certainly lose something, and we may very well lose everything.’” These ideas are in striking opposition to the rise of Postmodern relativism, which argues that there is no real truth outside of one’s own mind.

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Dom Cobb was not merely interested in being happy, for he could have been happy within the construct of a dream in which he was with projections of his dead wife and absent children. Instead, he is obsessed with getting back to his children in the real world, or at least what he believes to be the real world. “Artists attempt to portray ‘a touch of eternity’ that communicates potent truths about their subjects, and even to evoke certain feelings and responses in the viewer” (Eifler, Gordon). Clearly, Nolan is tackling the human struggle with reality, belief, and truth in a very powerful way, and thus encouraging meaningful thought.

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“Is there absolute truth?”

In fact, Nolan had already toyed with these ideas in his first Hollywood film Memento. That film featured another unreliable protagonist was confident of certain “facts.” As another character says to Leonard, “You lie to yourself to be happy. We all do it.” Again, Nolan is very clearly questioning beliefs that make us happy and encouraging people to acknowledge a truth outside of one’s own mind. In Leonard’s final monologue, he declares, “I have to believe in a world outside of my own mind… Is the world still there when I close my eyes? Is it still there? Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are. I’m no different.”

110310nolanI believe Nolan is making the argument that just because we close our eyes does not mean the world is blanketed in darkness; there is a reality outside of our own perspective. According to Nolan, our understanding may not necessarily correlate with truth and reality. In a sense, we are each of us our own unreliable protagonist, and that in and of itself is a reason to give the viewer pause. “Nolan’s films dramatize the conflicts between wish fulfillment and truthfulness, and illustrate the cost of conflating fantasy with reality” (Hibbs).

Christopher Nolan asserts that, “When it’s well done, a film noir or a psychological thriller speaks to things inside you very clearly. It speaks to your own fears, your own neuroses. It speaks to your way of looking at the world.” Therefore, I believe that Nolan is very conscious that he is probing at the viewer’s worldview and inner thoughts. He does not seem so interested at conveying a particular message, only to encourage the viewer to think and come to his or her own conclusion.

“Is there a spiritual realm?”

ohudftivmrhvbigAgain, a film’s “explication can be sheer joy, in addition to giving theological insight, intellectual illumination, and dramatic engagement” (Kozlovic). When a film can draw a connection between its entertainment value and its “illumination,” I believed it has achieved the ultimate. Although not as well-received critically as the other films mentioned, The Exorcism of Emily Rose has been received positively by audiences as one of the most effective exorcism horror movies ever. This film raises the question: “Is the spiritual realm real?” This question carries with it a host of other questions, including the existence of demons, angels, the Devil, and God. Interestingly enough, Emily Rose makes this issue very much the subject of the court case that drives its narrative.

Out of the court case testimony comes the horrific scenes that feature a demon-possessed Emily Rose. An Agnostic lawyer defends the Catholic priest charged with negligence in Emily’s death, while a Protestant Christian is charged with convicting the priest, arguing that Emily’s condition was physical. The Christian lawyer therefore takes the atheistic stance, therefore embodying his role as a hypocritical lawyer, while the Agnostic lawyer is forced to confront what she really believes about the spiritual.

the exorcism of emily rose 2005This contrast in views, one arguing for the possibility of the spiritual, and the other for the naturalistic or so-called scientific, is an excellent example of Didacticism. In his book Story, Robert McKee encourages the screenwriter to present both sides of his or argument, making the theme that much more powerful. The Exorcism of Emily Rose puts the existence of God and demons on trial, ultimately encouraging the viewer to ponder and discuss the reality of the supernatural, bringing the issue to life, and injecting real-world arguments.

“The communal viewing of a film in a darkened theatre and the lively discussion it inspires have become a more vital site of spiritual exploration and reflection that the mainstream church service… No longer is it simply a time of leisure or escapism. Rather it has become a time of rest, centering, Sabbath and sacrament” (Kozlovic). Clearly, films are capable of provoking meaningful discussion.

“Am I good or evil?”

seven1One could even argue that films can lead to spiritual epiphanies. “Since feature films are significant cultural bearers of social, moral and political values, watching them can be a valid form of religious practice” (Kozlovic). In David Fincher’s Se7en, the theme of human depravity is on full display. Though the theme is spoken in monologue by the villain, the movie’s tone, plot, and climax seem to resonate, to a limited degree, with his logic.

Indeed, the depravity of man is a fundamental idea in Judeo-Christian theology. Time after time, Scripture asserts that man is desperately wicked and has no hope apart from a Savior. Se7en offers no salvation, however it does seem to acknowledge that perhaps we are not all good. Perhaps we really are all selfish at our core, and if our intentions are selfish, is there any redemption for us? “In any film that seeks to connect with its viewers with regard to the human condition…theological criticism is both appropriate and even necessary” (Jonston). Se7en certainly provokes thought on the human condition.

“Can I be redeemed?”

gran-torino_image2The movie Gran Torino is very much about a man who is consumed with guilt, pride, and prejudice. Walt seems to believe that there is no real hope for him, no redemption to be had. However, in the last act, he confesses his sins to the priest, except of course for the fact that he had killed an unarmed man in Vietnam. While saying a Hail Mary to atone for his sins, he redeems himself by sacrificing himself for the sake of the new friends he has made. Director Clint Eastwood intends there to be no doubt about this moment, with Walt falling in the form of a crucified Christ.

“Walt’s behavior underscores the claim that the most morally ugly figures can be redeemed. This is also the meaning behind the tension between Walt’s bigotry and his sacrifice. Even the most wretched individual, ugly in word and ugly in deed, is capable of reaching redemption. It is an important and innovative Christian argument that the lowliest man is capable of tragedy” (Ward). Eastwood seems to be saying that man can indeed be redeemed of his crimes, and the audience is left with hope that the death of another can act as salvation for another.

16363551Clearly, theological and philosophical questions belong in the movie theater, but the film must first be entertaining and high quality, otherwise the message will be cheapened. The film must be worthy of the meaningful issues that it seeks to elevate. Braveheart screenwriter Randal Wallace said, “I want to walk out of a theater and think, Because of what I just experienced, my life will never be the same. I think everyone wants that.”

Works Cited

Eifler, Karen E., and Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C. “Bringing Eyes of Faith to Film: Using Popular

Movies to Cultivate a Sacramental Imagination and Improve Media Literacy in Adolescents.”

Catholic Education. September. (2011): 28-53. Web.

Hess, Mary. “Learning Religion and Religiously Learning: Musing on a Theme.”Luther Seminary.

105.3 234-237. Web.

Hibbs, Thomas. “Chronicle of Higher Education.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 50.12 (2003). Web.

Jonston, Robert. Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006. Print

Kozlovic, Anton Karl. “Christian Education and the Popular Cinema: The Creative Fusion of Film,

Faith, and Fun.”McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. (2007): 51-71. Web.

Legg, Pamela Mitchell. “Contemporary Films and Religious Exploration: An Opportunity for Religious

Education Part II: How to Engage in Conversation With Film.” Presbyterian School of

Christian Education. Atlas Serials. 120-132. Web.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1st ed.

New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print.

Mitchell, Jolyon. “Studies in World Christianity.” Studies in World Christianity. 107-112. Web.

Plate, S. Brent. “The Re-Creation of the World: Filming Faith.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology. 42.2 (2003): 155-160. Web.

Ward, Annalee R. “Gran Torino and Moral Order.” Christian Scholar’s Review. 375-392. Web.

Groundhog Day: Comedy meets Philosophy

The following is a critique for Groundhog Day, as submitted for a Cinema class at Regent University.

The 1990s classic Groundhog Day is a surprisingly philosophical and yet charming science-fiction film disguised as a romantic comedy, complete with a fantastical premise and unique narrative structure. The film has generated countless discussions and academic works in relation to its deeper meanings that have earned it status as a modern-day parable. However, Groundhog Day would not be so celebrated or controversial had it not first been genuinely funny, as the director and co-writer Harold Ramis insisted it be just that.

For most of the movie, the colors and lighting of the film seem somewhat muted and bleak. This is probably because of Phil’s predicament of being trapped in an endless winter. Being on the eve of a blizzard, the day that Phil is trapped in is very overcast, and the colors seem to reflect the hopeless feeling that begins to dominate Phil in the second act. Phil often refers to his predicament as a “long winter,” and the radio host starts his broadcast by saying “It’s cold out there, folks!” Phil’s sarcastic, cold demeanor towards the other characters also reflects this frigid theme, and the colors help set the mood for Phil’s outlook on his seemingly meaningless life. Lighting is used very strongly in a few scenes in particular. In the scene in which he has taken a woman to his bedroom, the room is lit with reds, reflecting the passion and lust of the moment. In the romantic scenes between Phil and Rita, particularly towards the end, the scenes contain soft colors that accentuate the romance. In the club scene, a myriad of lights reflect the crazy atmosphere of the town in party mode. Most notably, in the final scene wherein Phil has escaped Groundhog Day, the sun is radiant and reflecting off the fresh snowfall, creating a very bright, welcoming, Heaven-like feeling; this change reflects a sharp contrast to the rest of the movie. Interestingly enough, both the opening credits, as well as the end of the movie, frame a bright, partly cloudy sky.

The soundtrack of the film largely ties in to the film quite smoothly. Some of the first lyrics we hear are “I’m your weatherman,” obviously alluding to the main character’s profession. The lyrics that Phil wakes up to on each Groundhog Day are “I got you, babe”; this seems to imply that Groundhog Day literally has “got,” or trapped, Phil. The song which the town’s citizens are singing as Phil shows up to the park for the main Groundhog Day event has a strangely goofy sound to it, reflecting the unique nature of the citizens that Phil meets. During one of the “first dates” between Phil and Rita, the song “You Don’t Know Me” plays while they dance, echoed by Rita’s rejection of Phil’s early declarations of love; “You don’t even know me,” she says. “This is love,” Phil insists, but Rita stands her ground: “You don’t know what love is,” Rita says. She’s right; Phil may know facts about Rita, but he doesn’t really know the noble qualities that makes her tick, particularly the inherent kindness and true love that he lacks.

The fact that Phil chooses a piano as the instrument he learns to play, as well as the style he plays during the club scene (Jazz), both maximize the possibilities for musical variation and creativity—Jazz, by its very nature is versatile, while the piano has a plethora of keys. Phil echoes this theme when he says, “I’m versatile,” a term that Rita used earlier to describe his inspiring speech at the latest Groundhog Day. The director also uses the sound of a piano and a simple shot to tell the story of one scene in particular: While keeping the exterior of a house framed as a piano plays in the background, the music suddenly stops, a girl is shoved outside, and the piano begins to play again with much simpler notes, indicating that Phil has begun his first lesson.

Camera movement is fairly limited in the movie, mostly consisting of pans. A notable exception is a repeated shot which starts on the alarm clock on the night stand as the radio turns on, then pulling out and panning over to a close-up of Phil’s face as he awakes. The following shot is also repeated in which it starts as a long shot of Phil getting out of bed, pas as he walks to the bathroom to splash water in his face, and then pans back across the room as he re-enters the bedroom. Another more complex shot that is repeated is a crane shot when Phil first enters the Groundhog Day festival: at first, this shot pans with Phil, but as he passes the camera the crane rises to reveal the large crowd that is forming. Another crane shot starts with a slowly rotating angle from above the club scene as dancers spin beneath, then the camera descends and levels off at eye level; this shot ties into the perspective of the very next shot which is a dolly backwards, framed at eye level, as three characters walk forward. Another interesting shot was an extreme close-up and slow motion shot of the clock’s digits epically turning from 5:59 to 6:00, complete with loud sounds indicating that this is indeed the moment that time jumps back twenty-four hours.

Of course, the script is by far the most fascinating aspect of the film. In fact, “Groundhog Day is a cultural text that serves as a parable and rhetorically exhorts viewers to learn moral and spiritual lessons and behave in new ways” (Daughton 139). By violating natural laws of space and time, Groundhog Day is able to illustrate poignant and somewhat radical ideas about life. It is no coincidence that Phil’s name is also the groundhog’s name, and the film is itself philosophical. The writers feature Phil demonstrating various versions of humanity’s philosophies through the course of the movie. Phil is at times a Nietzche (seeing no meaning, he repeatedly commits suicide), at times a hedonist (“We could do whatever we want”), at times a polytheist (“I’m a god, not the God”), at times a charitable savior (the boy in the tree, the Mayor), not to mention his daily “reincarnation,” which is an allusion to Hinduism. On his final Groundhog Day, he becomes a part of the town and reaches a sort of Nirvana, evoking Buddhist themes. The idea of living in service for others is also a theme in Christianity. In the final scene, it is clear that Phil’s happiness is no longer found in pleasing himself, but in pleasing others. He asks Rita, as soon as he discovers he is no longer trapped in Groundhog Day, “Is there anything I can do for you?” His transformation from selfishness to selflessness is complete.

The first few scenes in the movie introduce weatherman Phil as an arrogant man who cares only for himself; he feels that covering Groundhog Day is beneath him and cannot wait to flee the town. However, the blizzard traps him in town, a foreshadowing of being trapped in Groundhog Day for what is likely years, though the exact length of time is never revealed. Interestingly enough, the only forecast we see Phil make as a weatherman turns out to be incorrect; he turns out to be wrong about the blizzard missing the Pittsburgh area. His professional prediction is unreliable. However, once he begins to re-live Groundhog Day, he is obviously able to accurately predict events, to a degree; when he sets out to manipulate outcomes, he is not always successful, despite countless attempts. “Groundhog Day presents one man’s metaphorical journey away from the stereotypically masculine pursuit of Power and agency, the drive to control his life and the people and events in it” (Daughton 143). The irony that Phil can only control events up to a certain point is true of the human condition in that we can expert certain things to happen due to prior experiences, but we cannot accurately predict everything that people will do; every person is a unique agent, and when two or more agents interact, outcomes will vary.

As stated previously, “when (Phil) first realizes he’s not crazy and that he can, in effect, live forever without consequences-if there’s no tomorrow, how can you be punished? He indulges his adolescent self” (Goldberg 36). This hedonistic lifestyle is ultimately unfulfilling, and his attempts at winning the affections of his true love, Rita, fall flat time and again. In fact, the film could be looked at as a rebuttal of post-modern and hedonistic philosophies: “Connors’s metamorphosis contradicts almost everything postmodernity teaches. He doesn’t find paradise or liberation by becoming more ‘authentic,’ by acting on his whims and urges and listening to his inner voices. That behavior is soul-killing” (Goldberg 37). Though he is not aging, Phil seems to be maturing before our eyes. He realizes that he is “stuck in the same place,” and wondering what if “nothing you ever did mattered,” to which another character replies: “That sums it up for me.” This literal repetition of events with some variation is therefore strikingly similar to each person’s individual life in which certain elements of one’s life are continually repeating; everyone can fall into a monotonous routine of going to work everyday and seemingly living a meaningless life, as Phil finds himself doing. Phil is always seeing “the glass half empty,” as one character says. He can never satisfy his desires, particularly his one deep desire: winning Rita’s heart, even after years of attempts.

Is it any coincidence, then, that the ice on his bedroom window seems to have formed the shape of an eye through which Phil can see the world? One day it looks bleak, the next bright and magical, complete with a fresh snowfall. His worldview, his very way of living, has completely changed. “Connors eventually achieves spiritual growth by completely revising his estimate of what ‘getting it right’ means. Phil Connors learns the hard way, one concentrated day at a time, how to live his life” (Daughton 144). By forgoing his own desires for the desires of others, Phil finally learns to truly love. He is no longer consumed by his own wants; instead, he immerses himself in the town that he once hated, completely content in making the quirky town his home.

Works Cited

Daughton, Suzanne. “The Spiritual Power of Repetitive Form: Steps Toward Transcendence in

Groundhog Day.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 13. (1996): n. page. Print.

Goldberg, Jonah. “A Movie For All Time.” National Review. 57.2 (2005): n. page. Print.

‘Lincoln’ is Cinema at its Finest

The following is the first draft of a critique of the film Lincoln which I wrote for a cinema class at Regent University. 

Steven Spielberg has fashioned a film of tremendous historical import and timeless, masterful artistry. The film envelopes the viewer in the story with its density of pertinent plot points, meaningful imagery, emotional performances, and incredible attention to detail as a legitimate period piece depicting the final months of the life President Lincoln and his political battle to both end slavery and end the Civil War. 

Lincoln has been well-received by critics, scoring a positive review from 145 critics, a 91 percent rate, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes. Claudia Puig of the USA Today gave it three and a half stars out of four, calling it “an absorbing intellectual look at the political machinations involved in abolishing slavery,” adding that Tony Kushner’s script is “perfectly-calibrated.”

The film begins with the sounds and images of a brutal battle in the American Civil War. Soldiers from the North and South are depicted in hand-to-hand combat on a mud-soaked battlefield. Within seconds, Spielberg has captured the ugliness that is war, particularly a Civil War that pits fellow countrymen against each other. The first image we see of President Abraham Lincoln himself is an over-the-shoulder shot that captures his slumping figure, looking out upon a Union camp. Immediately we see that this man of impressive physical and historical stature has become weary and frail yet still seems to tower above it all like a mythic figure.

Lincoln narrates a dream sequence in which the sixteenth President is upon a ship racing at high speeds to an unknown destination. Mrs. Lincoln suggests that this has something to do with his pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment, but one wonders if it doesn’t have more to do with Lincoln’s impending death and reaching the shores of Heaven; or, perhaps it is suggesting that Lincoln is leader of a nation that was racing quickly toward the shore of freedom and equality for all.

The lighting in the film seems realistic yet strangely surreal, with dim light in several interior scenes where the only lighting would have been fire-related, like candles and oil lamps. Often, the frame contains smoke imagery from the cigars of politicians and bureaucrats, recalling the smoke-filled battlefields of the Cvil War with its cannons and gunfire.

As Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s cinematographer, veils events in such a rarefied and sifted haze that they seem already poised halfway to myth. Just look at the President, haloed and framed against a window, in semi-silhouette, as he sits in a rocking chair reading to his young son Tad . They could be in a picture book themselves.”

Lincoln’s son studies photographs of slaves by flickering orange firelight, recalling images of the Holocaust. Other than the orange glows from candles and fires, muted and cool greens, grays and blues seem to dominate the picture, contributing to the cold atmosphere of nineteenth century winters in Washington. Lincoln is often shown with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His top hat aptly becomes a character of its own in the movie, often garnering close-ups.

Equality becomes a central theme in the movie, as it is traditionally understood (equality in terms of personhood). Thaddeus Stevens asserts before Congress that he holds all men be “equal before the law.” The very first scene with Lincoln depicts him speaking with a pair of African-American Union officers, one of which is boiling over with the frustration of slow progress in attaining economic equality in the eyes of white men. The man’s frustration is righteous, but Lincoln could do little about the prejudice in the hearts of men, and he says as much: “I suppose that they will learn to tolerate each other.” Spielberg’s Lincoln acknowledges that with time and limited government action, the nation could be united wherein men of all skin colors could enjoy equal liberties as well as associate with each other without reservation or prejudice.

In another scene, Lincoln tells two men that he used to read a lot as a young man, and he brings up Euclid’s rule that “Things which equal the same thing also equal one another.” Lincoln seems to be saying that if both a black man and a white man are human, then they are equal. Thaddeus Stevens later makes the argument that he may look at another man and think him an idiot or full of corruption, but that does not make him any less human. Lincoln therefore makes both moral and logical arguments for the Thirteenth Amendment and irrationality of slavery built on racial prejudice.

It is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln, though, that truly mesmerizes the viewer. Lou Lumenick of The New York Post explains: “Adopting an odd, high-pitched voice, Day-Lewis thoroughly inhabits the part of a war-weary president who’s fond of telling long and folksy autobiographical stories.” Daniel Day-Lewis is so convincing and riveting as the most beloved political figure in American history, that it is hard not to be completely enraptured by his authentic, layered, and moving portrayal of the often melancholy, introspective, self-deprecating, somewhat peculiar, thoroughly human, yet passionate and attention-commanding figure.

In an interview Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln’s older son Robert, even remarked that he did not actually meet the actor Day-Lewis until after filming for the movie had wrapped; apparently, the Academy Award-winning actor never broke character during production of the film. Daniel Day-Lewis may have been the only actor on the planet who could have delivered the gravitas to the character of Abraham Lincoln in such a thoroughly engrossing way.

Another accomplished actor receiving Oscar buzz is Tommy Lee Jones, who is witty, cantankerous, and sincere as the passionate abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens. However, there were no weak links in the entire massive cast; every actor seemed to realize the importance of the film, however small his or her role might be.

The subtle parallels drawn between the final months of Abraham Lincoln and the final days of Jesus Christ are striking. The character of General Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln that he looks to have aged ten years in the past year. Throughout the film, Lincoln is depicted as a man under incredible stress and suffering, as if he bears the pains of a nation in Civil War; as if he bears the weight of every fallen American and the tortuous life of every black man still in slavery—as if he were carrying a cross. Even his family life is anything but ideal.

Like the story of Job in the Bible, Lincoln’s wife is represented as unsupportive, divisive, and angry, if not mentally unstable as some historians suggest. We learn that the child they lost still weighs heavy on his heart. His older son is portrayed as constantly pestering Lincoln to allow him to join the army, and Lincoln faces the prospect of both losing another child as well as inviting his wife’s further rage. This suffering is similar to the turmoil that was apparently going on with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as his physical and spiritual torture leading up to and including his crucifixion.

Just as Mrs. Lincoln says, “No one has ever been so loved by the people;” but perhaps no one had ever been so hated by those among the Confederates. This is yet another similarity with Christ, because Jesus was and is to this day loved and worshipped by His followers, yet was hated enough that he was brutally tortured and killed and is still hated to this day.

In the scene directly preceding Lincoln’s assassination, he says, “I guess it’s time to go, though I’d rather stay.” This obvious double meaning is then followed by his discarding of his gloves, which the black butler retrieves. The black butler then watches as Lincoln and his famous hat are framed in silhouette by a window, as he descends down a staircase out of sight. There seems to be a good deal of symbolism going on in this brief sequence. Lincoln is both leaving this life behind, descending into the grave, a mysterious and legendary man. Historically, Lincoln is known for his dislike of wearing gloves, but there seems to be more to the moment, as if Lincoln was passing the torch to black men and women. Perhaps the moment is indicating that Lincoln’s fight is over, and he is leaving those that he freed to now possess the power to continue the fight themselves. Indeed, the film suggests that the fight to come will be difficult for black people, a likely allusion to the persecution leading up until and through the Civil Rights Movement. Again, this seems to be yet another parallel with Christ, recalling His charge to the disciples, that they might further His mission though they would be persecuted for His sake.

The visual image of Lincoln being cloaked in black from head to toe, except for his hands, also seems to be an allusion to Christ in which He took on the sins of the world so that the world might live and be free. Likewise, Lincoln figuratively took on the sins of a nation—the sins of slavery and violence—by giving his life, both literally and figuratively, so that the slaves might live; so that the words of the Declaration of Independence might be fulfilled: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Just as Christ was killed on a cross, the last image of the film is a shot depicting Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which he is holding his arms out, palms outward, for an extended moment, recalling Christ hanging on the cross before a multitude of onlookers.

Lincoln is truly masterful filmmaking, thick with rich imagery and themes that remain relevant even until today and will likely remain relevant for generations to come. Steven Spielberg celebrates and honors a legendary and heroic man who is loved and revered, perhaps more than any other American historical figure. Indeed, the film is worthy of the man it depicts. As the film transitions from Lincoln’s deathbed to his inaugural address, the man is framed in the flame of a candle, perhaps signifying that the words and work of Abraham Lincoln will continue to burn on as an eternal flame, a light that shines for our nation and nations around the world.

 

Bain vs Bane: The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises

*WARNING: This article contains some plot details of The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is the must-see event of the summer. Its overarching themes, thrilling action, and gripping suspense transcend the superhero genre and extend to ancient myths, classic literature, and altogether high quality storytelling. So why has this blockbuster been politicized, taking some of the joy out what is otherwise a wildly entertaining epic about the Caped Crusader otherwise known as Batman?

Well, donchya know? It’s an election year! It’s Democratic President Barack Obama in one corner and the Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney in the other. It’s liberalism versus conservatism, fairness versus freedom, and blue versus red, and they’re always looking to one-up each other by latching on to current events and news. However, most of the political attacks leveled against Romney in relation to The Dark Knight Rises occurred before the movie actually came out. I was privileged enough to see the movie at its midnight showing, and I’ll break down its messages and politics.

 

In the midst of the Obama campaign’s charges against Romney, Democrats have been especially critical regarding details of his time as CEO of Bain Capital, an investment firm that attempted to turn around struggling businesses or invest in startups. Given that the villain in the new Batman film is called “Bane,” Democrats latched onto the homonym. They saw an uncanny connection between Bane, the merciless mercenary bent on destruction, and Bain Capital, which often closed down factories and cut jobs in order to save a company from complete ruin. (To be fair, Bain Capital has far more success stories of creating profit–and thus jobs–than failures). The Obama campaign is hoping to highlight what they call the “vulture capitalism” of Bain Capital, thereby disqualifying Romney as an elitist who cares little for the people, only for his own financial and political gain.

Christopher Nolan, the writer/director of The Dark Knight trilogy, is a smart filmmaker. According to a consensus of critics and moviegoers, every one of his eight movies are excellent moviemaking (just check out rottentomatoes.com for a list of reviews). Nolan is my favorite filmmaker. The complexity and depth of his movies is on the highest level, with masterpieces like the psychological thrillers Memento and The Prestige, not to mention the mind-bending sci-fi heist movie Inception. Therefore, I do not doubt that Nolan is aware of current events. In fact, he even admitted in an interview that, regarding The Dark Knight Rises, “We were trying to honestly reflect the world we live in.”

Having seen The Dark Knight Rises, I can vouch for its storytelling integrity and greatness as a modern legend. Politics is not at the forefront of the movie. In fact, politics is nowhere to be found, unless you’re really looking for it. Having said that, there are several moments and lines in the movie that speak to the very issues we are debating in this election year. But let me begin with Bain versus Bane.

It’s not just Democrats who have linked Bain to Bane. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh claimed that the comic book creators or Bane meant it as a criticism of Bain Capital. Nolan called this a “peculiar” notion, in his soft-spoken British-American accent. And in a recent interview with the creators of Bane, both men say they are conservatives who had not heard of Mitt Romney or Bain Capital when they were creating Bane in the early 1990s.

But did Nolan make the connection? Let’s examine the character Bane. He is a foreign mercenary bent on the total destruction of Gotham. He is merciless, he is cold. He hates the world, and he cares for almost no one. In his quest to overthrow the government of Gotham, he destroys the infrastructure as well as roads, bridges, stadiums, tunnels, etc. Having just killed the mayor and imprisoned most of the city’s police force, he tells a stadium full of people and those watching on television to take control of their city, to essentially do as they pleased. There are essentially no rules and no authority. He doesn’t care about money, profits, or people. Only destruction.

Here, I pause. Does Bane sound like anyone that you know? Yeah, didn’t think so. Nor does he sound like an institution founded to turn around failing companies. It appears that Nolan does not compromise the nature of Bane for any political message. I actually doubt that Nolan knew anything at all about Bain Capital either when he and his brother Jonathan were writing the script in 2009 and 2010 or when they were filming it in 2011.  Therefore, I have to conclude that connections between Bane and Bain are ridiculous.

However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any political messages at all in the film. There very well may be, but you have to listen very closely. In one of the opening scenes, the cat burglar Selina Kyle tells billionaire Bruce Wayne, “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re going to wonder why you lived so large and left so little for the rest of us.” Selina Kyle lives in near-poverty, and she steals to provide for herself and those she cares about. Selina Kyle ends up aiding Bane, looking forward to a time where the playing field is even (when Bane eliminates the currency and typical justice).

Clearly, Selina Kyle holds a Robin Hood-like mentality that is similar to that of President Obama. He often speaks of the rich paying their fair share, paying more taxes, etc. Early on in the movie, it’s established that Bruce Wayne had been helping to fund an orphanage. When his company stopped being profitable, the money stopped going to that orphanage. One character in particular confronts Wayne on “paying attention” and “apathy,” regarding his charitable giving. It’s an interesting few moments, but does it indicate the liberal ideology of redistribution of wealth, or voluntary charity? I suppose it’s up to the viewer to decide that.

Later on in the movie, once anarchy has taken control of Gotham, Selina Kyle has a moment in the house of a rich family where she is looking at a picture in a broken frame. “Somebody lived here,” she says introspectively. The moment she had strived for her whole life, when the playing field would finally be leveled, was not as triumphant as she thought it would be. Selina Kyle realizes thats what she considered to be “good” for everyone else, was a tragedy for another family. Her character goes through a long journey of selfishness which is confronted by Batman’s sacrifices. After betraying Batman, she becomes more compassionate and wants to help save Gotham.

In a few scenes that echo A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Crane (or Scarecrow from Batman Begins) is a judge. Anyone who is brought before his court is either rich or a policeman, and he sentences all of them to death without due process or proper evidence. To be fair, many of the rich are displayed as corrupt, and some of them employ Bane, thinking he will deliver a fortune to them.

In the epic climax, Bane and his mercenaries/convicted felons confront Batman and the police force. This scene was made famous during production, because it was filmed during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s popularity. There was speculation that Bane’s minions could represent the Occupy crowd. It is worth noting that the film would have been written around the time of the Tea Party, however, there had also been several riots in Europe during that time. It seems to me, however, that the fact Bane utilizes a sort of anarchy that leveled the playing field with mass poverty is not a great argument for the Occupy message.

Finally, we come to Bruce Wayne. Billionaire owner of a large company who wants to save his city. If anything, this sounds somewhat like Mitt Romney, who is worth at least $250 million and owned Bain Capital for several years as its co-founder. He often speaks of “saving the soul of America” in his speeches.

I have touched on various aspects of the film in regards to possible political undertones, but I don’t have a definitive answer, only to say that I don’t believe the franchise or this film in particular is motivated by politics, but by story and characters. Connections made between Bane and Bain are ridiculous, but there are echoes of certain themes regarding class warfare.

The theme of the movie is rising. Bruce Wayne rising above his own psychological turmoil, the villains rising out of Hell on earth, orphans rising from poverty, Gotham rising from the ashes. Along the way, there are several places where Bruce Wayne or other characters are helping the needy. Wayne tosses a rope to some prisoners. He donates to orphanages. He helps Gotham’s citizens, which are mostly portrayed as helpless. Selina Kyle helps those closest to her. Alfred helped Bruce as a child. This list goes on.

There is a scene in a dark prison at the bottom of a large hole in the earth wherein it is revealed that only one person has ever climbed to the top, a child. This symbolism would seem to indicate that those in society who rise to the top have a responsibility to help those who don’t. Liberals believe this is accomplished by higher taxes on the rich and more entitlement spending. Obama calls it “giving back.” Conservatives believe in helping the needy, the disabled, the old, and the young as well, but mostly through charitable giving. Or perhaps it is only meant as a metaphorical parallel for the mythological Phoenix, who rises out of the ashes.

I cannot know for sure what the Nolan brothers meant when they wrote it, but I suppose people will read into it what they wish to. Other people can obsess over it, but I just love the movie. It is truly a rare piece of cinema that carries with it a triumphant and inspiring message in these dark, perilous times of economic and political uncertainty.

Check out my review for The Dark Knight Rises.