Finding Dory review

There was a time when Pixar stayed away from sequels. Apart from the successful Toy Story franchise, it seemed like the animation giant wanted to treat its wildly successful films as the standalone masterpieces they are. But the company has taken a different tack in recent years, creating sequels to the likes of Monsters Inc. and Cars. Kicking off a further wave of upcoming sequels is Finding Dory, the long-dormant and much-hyped sequel to Finding Nemo, one of the studio’s most enduring outputs. Like Pixar’s slate of other sequels, it’s not strictly necessary, but it is successful in following the studio’s operating mantra regarding their much-beloved IP: do no harm.

The film takes place one year after the events of the original, with blue tang Dory (voiced by Elen Degeneres) living a peaceful existence beside her clownfish friend Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence). Dory, who suffers from short-term memory loss, is startled when fragmented memories of her parents begin to appear, and she quickly decides that she must go in search of them. Of course, forgetful (and impulsive) fish are likely to get lost along the way, perhaps forgetting why they left on an adventure to begin with. And so, Nemo (eagerly) and Marlin (reluctantly) agree to tag along for the ride. Their travels soon lead them to a California Marine park where Dory believes her parents are. Here, they come across a colorful cast of new characters—including Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill), shark fish Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and beluga whale Bailey (Ty Burell)—who help Dory and company in their quest to find her missing parents.

By Pixar standards, the plot is extremely simple but not simplistic. While the story contains few surprises, there’s a welcome emotional resonance to Dory’s arc, as we see flashbacks of experiences with her parents as a child. The audience uncovers Dory’s memories along with her, which is an engaging hook. Compared to other recent Pixar sequels like Cars 2 and Monsters University, Dory does a better job of keeping us engaged with the emotional core of the story.

Finding Dory is  a visually stunning and fun little sequel to the classic original.

Finding Dory is a visually stunning and fun little sequel to the classic original.

While Dory succeeds under certain comparisons, it suffers under others. Specifically, the original film it follows. Perhaps no one expected this sequel to reach the emotions and pitch-perfect comedic timing of Finding Nemo, but even so this is a much lesser effort. We get lots of insight into Dory’s character and background, but Marlin and Nemo (along with all other returning characters) are disappointingly static, existing as props to aid Dory’s discoveries and nothing else. While pretty to look at and quite funny, there is nothing here that can be described as essential cinema.

Thankfully, the new characters do a lot to help assuage the familiarity. Hank the octopus is one of Pixar’s most creative creations, a visual tour de force in his bright colors and his expert use of camouflage. Destiny the vision-impaired shark gets a lot of laughs, as do rambunctious sea lions Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West). All of the new characters are also stunning to behold; Pixar’s animation has come a long way since even the gorgeous original, making for one of the prettiest CG animated films I’ve seen.

Finding Dory is ultimately a minor triumph in its ability to do no harm. The risk of making a sequel to a beloved property (especially an old one) is the fear that it will be poor enough to diminish opinions of the original. But there’s no risk of that here. Finding Nemo is still a masterpiece, and Finding Dory is a fun, breezy chance to reunite with some classic characters and learn to love some new faces. It’s funny, occasionally inventive and visually jaw-dropping, but I won’t be revisiting it time and again like I have the original.

X-Men: Apocalypse review

The X-Men franchise has always held a unique place among comic-based superhero films. It could be argued that director Bryan Singer’s 2000 original heralded in the superhero renaissance that would soon define the world of blockbuster cinema. The superhero sub-genre has come a long way since then, and the franchise has seen its share of ups and downs, from the disappointments of X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine to the creative rebirth of First Class and Days of Future Past, the latter of which lured Singer back to the director’s chair for the first time since the fan-favorite X-Men 2. With X-Men: Apocalypse, Singer is back along with an excellent cast that includes new and returning iterations of famous and well-known characters, and the result is a film that in many ways feels like a throwback, despite its younger cast. This is both a very good and very bad thing.

Apocalypse is instantly much darker and violent than the films that came before it, as we open upon ancient Egyptians worshipping what they see as a god, but what we see as the very first mutant (Oscar Isaac). He goes by many names, but we see him as En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse. This extremely powerful being has been able to survive centuries by transferring his consciousness to a new mutant host, while also gaining his/her powers and adding them to his arsenal of skills. But, when a conflict causes him to be entombed, Apocalypse is buried for thousands of years, until the year 1983, when a cult of followers hunts down his remains and brings him back to life (the film doesn’t really bother with any sort of explanation as to how this transference and reanimation works).

Meanwhile, the mutants we know so well are dealing with the fallout of the events of the previous films. It has been 10 years since mutants were “introduced” to the rest of the world in Washington, D.C. when the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) saved the president and other world leaders from the vengeful wrath of Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Since then, Mystique has gone rogue, while Magneto has settled down in Poland working at a steel mill and living in an almost-too-quaint forest cottage with a wife and child.

Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has begun his school for gifted youngsters in earnest, training a new generation in earnest along with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). He is introduced to several new students, including the telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), the laser-eyed Scott Sommers (Tye Sheridan) and the teleporting Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Little does Xavier know he’s actually preparing an army to fight against Apocalypse, who sees the human world as a disease that must be eradicated so that mutants can once again rise to rule the earth as gods. By his side are his four horsemen, young mutants he sways to his cause by enhancing their powers, including Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and yes, the master of metal himself, Magneto (is it much of a surprise to hear that things in Europe don’t turn out so great?). At stake is the fate of the world itself and the most epic confrontation our gifted heroes have yet faced.

X-Men Apocalypse features just enough enough awesome fan service to excuse its myriad problems.

X-Men: Apocalypse features just enough enough awesome fan service to excuse its myriad problems.

Many of Apocalypse’s problems are obvious from the get-go. The oppressively dark religious imagery and themes of the film’s first third are a real bummer, and the exposition is sluggish and dull. I was bothered by writer Simon Kinberg’s odd attempts at balancing humor with some extremely gruesome content (how they managed a PG-13 with this one is a mystery—it’s brutal). The film is also extraordinarily over-the-top, even for a franchise that seems to wear that as a badge of honor. If John Ottman’s bombastic, overbearing score isn’t enough to convince you of that this movie is supposed to be super EPIC, nearly everything else in the film will. It just seems like it’s trying way too hard.

The other main issue I have with the film is Apocalypse himself. God bless Oscar Isaac, but this is one of the cheesiest villains I’ve seen in a comic film. I love seeing Isaac ham it up, and his design is actually pretty cool, but his plan is confusing and the “sci-fi science” behind his powers is ludicrous. For example: how, exactly does he recruit his horsemen? Even after he finds them (no easy task, given that the film makes a big deal about Apocalypse not having telepathic abilities), does he brainwash them, or simply tell them he’s powerful and that they should follow him? I seem to believe the latter, but it wouldn’t make much sense for some of the horsemen to follow him unconditionally, either. Furthermore, our big bad seems intimidating and powerful in some scenes, while a total pushover in others.

Rarely can a film recover from this many problems, but I’m glad to report that Apocalypse somehow manages to pull it off. The second half is terrific. This is thanks to some mind-blowing set piece moments that rival anything we’ve seen in the series; thank God for Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose antics are just as much a highlight here as they were in Days of Future Past. We also get a glorious cameo from a certain mutton-chopped mutant that is so insanely cool I couldn’t help but clap for it.

The X-Men franchise has always survived on the strength of its characters, and that holds true here. Magneto and Xavier are the finest written characters in all of superhero-dom, and even when so many other elements threaten that, the bond these two share shines through beautifully. The writing is helped greatly by the performances: McAvoy and Fassbender feel born to play these roles, as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan did before, and they’re better than ever here. I feel the same way about Lawrence’s Mystique, although most of her character growth occurred in the last film. The new cast is also uniformly excellent; I particularly enjoyed Tye Sheridan’s version of a young Cyclops and Smit-McPhee’s interpretation of Nightcrawler, probably my favorite mutant. The action-packed climax doesn’t feel particularly inspired, but I cared enough about these characters that the mostly bland CGI cacophony worked well enough.

X-Men: Apocalypse is an odd grab-bag of half-baked ideas mixed with undeniable brilliance. The franchise has always placed a premium on character, and that’s certainly true here. This unfortunately comes at the expense of a decent story, and I wish the two sides were as balanced and nuanced as they were in Days of Future Past. Still, some messes are very much worth seeing, and that is true here. Fans of the franchise will have plenty to enjoy and ruminate on, but there’s sadly very little here to endear outsiders to the world of mutants.

Last Days in the Desert review

Hollywood sure seems to have a thing for interpretive biblical fiction these days. Unlike artistic adaptations of known Bible stories like Noah or inspirational Christian dramas like Miracles from Heaven, this third biblical sub-genre is intent on filling in biblical gaps or providing additional speculative context to known biblical events. This year has already seen the likes of Risen, which told the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from an alternative viewpoint, and The Young Messiah, which took a look at Jesus’ lost childhood years. Now comes Last Days in the Desert, an artistic powerhouse that dives into Jesus’ 40 days of wandering through the desert as he prepares for his ministry and eventual crucifixion. It’s easily the best of the bunch.

Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia was keenly interested in the relationship between fathers and sons as he wrote the script, and that topic permeates the film. The principal relationship, obviously, is between Jesus Christ and God the Father. This version of Christ (played with haunting clarity by Ewan McGregor), is plagued with intense doubt and confusion about his mission. It doesn’t help that the devil (also played by McGregor) continues to taunt him, attempting to draw Yeshua, as he’s called here, away from his ultimate purpose. Compared to Yeshua’s stoic silence, this demon is playful and full of emotion. He tells Yeshua that God doesn’t love him, that he’s abandoned him, that his mission is fruitless. But there’s a pang there, too, a longing in the devil to feel God’s touch the way he once did, when he was the Father’s right hand angel.

This scenes between the two forces are the film’s most riveting. These conversations ask profound questions that most films (and certainly most Christian films) don’t dare to touch upon. The nature of reality, of free will, of God’s love in a cruel universe, these are the topics that envelop the devil’s mind and, by extension, Yeshua’s. What makes these scenes so compelling is not only Garcia’s sharp and intelligent dialogue but McGregor’s top-notch performance. His devil is a hoot, but his portrayal of Christ is equally riveting. If most Jesus movies seem more concerned with Christ’s deity than his humanity, the opposite runs true here. This is the most human portrayal of Christ I’ve seen. He thirsts, he gets blisters on his feet, he yells in frustration, he laughs at jokes and, in one odd scene, a fart. Sometimes, he says the wrong thing, or says the right thing in the wrong way. Because we don’t see Jesus perform any miracles or preach any messages, we see him as much more human that we’re used to. The effect is somewhat disconcerting but also effective.

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Last Days in the Desert provides a riveting portrait of a conflicted Christ, and carves an utterly unique space among Jesus films.

Thankfully, the entire film doesn’t consist of Christ wandering around the desert. He runs across a father (Ciaran Hines) and son (Tye Sheridan) caring for the father’s ailing wife (Ayelet Zurer). Yeshua agrees to rest for a few days as he helps the family build a house. The relationship between this earthly father and son is strained. The boy wants to go to Jerusalem and follow his dreams, but the father wants him to stay and build upon the land. As Yeshua befriends the boy, he begins to ponder his relationship with his heavenly father in light of the fraying father-son relationship he has found himself in the middle of. Meanwhile, the devil believes he has found new ways to tempt and torture Yeshua through the family he is so keen on helping.

Last Days is undoubtedly an odd film, one that is very loosely structured and almost deliberately plotless. It’s also gorgeous, thanks to the work of legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who makes the harsh desert landscape pop. His lens is so full of light and color, there are scenes where you would swear you were looking at God himself, especially during some of the sky shots (he achieved similar effect in The Tree of Life and The Revenant). I was thrilled to see Lubezki’s interpretation of the crucifixion; the scene’s stark, almost cold beauty and creative angles put it among my all-time favorite interpretations of that iconic moment.

Last Days in the Desert is an extraordinary artistic achievement, but on an emotional level it isn’t entirely successful. Some awkward attempts at humor fall flat, some relationships feel underdeveloped and the pacing will likely be too slow for some. It also isn’t a “redemptive” Christian tale in the traditional sense. In fact, its commercial credentials are almost non-existent. Garcia is much closer to Pier Paolo Pasolini in style and tone than Mel Gibson (we get even less reference to the resurrection here than Gibson’s brief nod in The Passion of the Christ).

But most of the things that would turn people away are what make the film so unique. I’ve never seen a Jesus film like Last Days, and given how much material there is to copy out there, that’s a statement I never thought I’d make. It’s a provocative, soul stirring and yes, uncomfortable film, but that’s exactly why I can’t wait to see it again.

Captain America: Civil War review

It seems like none of our heroes can get along these days. We recently saw two legends spar in Batman V. Superman, and morally opposed vigilantes Daredevil and The Punisher squared off on Netflix’s Daredevil. Now, with Captain America: Civil War, we find many of our Marvel heroes exchanging both verbal and physical volleys. Superheroes may often be known for facing off against memorable bad guys, but their greatest foes may come from within.

Civil War finds our heroes facing more division than ever before, as their worlds become more morally neutral and their lines begin to blur. It’s a bleak, devastating and emotionally gripping landscape, which is why this latest Marvel film often feels more like a Greek tragedy than a summer popcorn flick. It’s also one of the many reasons why Civil War stands as the best Marvel flick to date.

Steve Rodgers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans) finds himself once again clinging to his WWII-era values as he butts heads with longtime companion Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) over a new UN-sanctioned bill that would force the super powered Avengers team to answer to world governments. Tony sees this oversight as necessary; Avengers incidents have caused untold destruction around the world, and his hubris created the robotic villain Ultron. What harm could a bit of control cause? But Steve, with memories of Nazi Germany still fresh in his mind, fears that this oversight may be more akin to chains. What if our heroes need to act, but the council decides they shouldn’t?

Each hero attempts to smooth talk the other to get them to join their side, and it’s here that the script does a brilliant job setting up why this conflict is important and why we should care. Other Avengers have long and fascinating discussion on the nature of control and what it means to be a hero. The landscape is a surprisingly moral one, and all the more worth paying attention to because it doesn’t provide any easy answers. Many of the heroes, like us, see the logic of both sides. Some heroes, like The Vision (Paul Bettany) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johannsson), operate primarily on logic. Others, like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and newcomer Black Panther (an excellent Chadwick Boseman), are motivated to pick sides primarily by emotion, driven by events in the film that change their perspective. Still others, like The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle), are more concerned with loyalty (the former with Cap, the latter with Iron Man). But each character, big and small, is given a reason and motivation for their actions, and that richness and depth of character echoes throughout the film.

Civil War is a bold and nuanced superhero flick, filled with memorable characters and action setpieces.

Civil War is a bold and nuanced superhero flick, filled with memorable characters and action setpieces.

But this conflict is informed by more than the UN bill. There’s also Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s childhood friend who we last saw as an unstoppable Hydra-controlled killing machine. When it appears he committed a deadly bombing, Tony goes on the hunt, but Steve’s loyalty to his friend requires him to go against the law to protect his friend and get behind the truth of what actually happened.

What’s so extraordinary about Civil War is that it juggles so many elements without feeling overstuffed or underdeveloped. The film is so well written, and the characters so well fleshed out, that, even when the film is keeping secrets from the audience, it’s easy to track with. It’s one of the talkiest superhero movies I’ve seen, but that means that, when the entirely spectacular action comes, we actually care about what we’re seeing (something the recent Batman V. Superman failed at).

I’ve said before that Marvel has a villain problem, but this film deftly sidesteps that flaw in several ways. It gives us a villain of sorts (Zemo, played by the always great Daniel Bruhl), but he’s just a regular guy, and his motivations are rich and understandable. More importantly, he’s not the main source of conflict. When you have the earth’s greatest heroes fighting each other, why do you really need a bad guy at all?

Civil War may sound like a downer, and it can be, but it’s also probably the funniest Marvel film to date. That’s mostly thanks to Paul Rudd’s Ant Man, but also the introduction of Tom Holland’s new Spider-Man. Sure, he’s mostly there for fan service, and his justification for joining the battle is thin. But it’s hard to complain when he shows up on screen, because this is the Spider-Man fans have been waiting for. Young, inexperienced and highly out of his depth, this Spidey laughs in the face of danger because he doesn’t quite see the gravity of the situation; he’s having too much fun with his new powers. The film’s major set piece battle between the two sides is a total blast, one that had me grinning throughout.

The word I keep coming back to with Captain America: Civil War is balance. The film deftly balances old and new, comic and tragic, epic and intimate. The new characters are perfectly realized and the old ones feel like they belong there. It’s the funniest Marvel film, but also the saddest. It’s filled with jaw-dropping action scenes, but it also breathes long enough to tell us why we should care that all these brightly dressed heroes are flipping through the air and blowing things up. Civil War brings an unparalleled depth and gravitas to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s essential viewing for even the casual Marvel fan. For everyone else, this is the movie that will convince you to become one.

Phoenix Film Festival Recap: The indie spirit is alive and well

One of my favorite things about film festivals is that you never quite know what you’re going to get. The modern cinematic experience has largely been soured by early reviews and spoiler-filled trailers, but attending the Phoenix Film Festival is like stepping back into a time when all it took to sell you on a movie was a title and a two-sentence summary. While larger festivals like Sundance have in some ways become too commercialized, such wonder (and sometimes horror) in the face of mystery is still very much present here.

I didn’t expect to be so sobered (and educated) by Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a hair-raising documentary about a tragic plane bombing that haunted a generation. I didn’t expect to be so moved by The Man Who Knew Infinity, an impeccably acted biopic about Indian math whiz Srinivasa Ramanujan. I didn’t expect to have my mind so thoroughly twisted in knots by the sci-fi time travel wonder Displacement, or laugh so hard at The Meddler, a film that on paper seemed to be a more serious drama.

The tagline for the Phoenix Film Festival is “find your new favorite movie,” and, while that may be a bit dramatic, I appreciate and understand the spirit of such a phrase. You really can find anything at a place like this, even your new most hated movie. Both sides of the coin seemed to be present during screenings of Night of Something Strange, a schlocky horror film so disgusting it had even the staunchest gore hounds running for the exits (and the true-blue sickos singing its praises).

I, along with many others, certainly found some of my new favorite short films here. The best piece of advice I could give to a first-time festival-goer is see some short films. Sci-fi shorts, horror shorts, animated, live-action and documentary are all on display, and they’re some of the most creative (and sometimes downright bizarre) stuff you’ll ever see. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a theater audience laugh as hard as we did during the Spanish-language short “A King’s Betrayal,” which is narrated by a piñata horse as he makes his journey from store selection to ultimate grim purpose. It’s a similar concept to the upcoming Seth Roger-led animated film Sausage Party, which will have a hard time matching this.

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The Phoenix Film Festival is a great example of what makes festivals so much fun and so special.

The shorts programs also best illustrate my other favorite aspect of film festivals: the community. One of the highlights of the festival was getting to chat with director Peter Brambl about his awesome short film “The Mountain King.” It’s an impeccably crafted and loving homage to 70’s crime thrillers, telling an epic and generation-spanning story of loss and redemption in the span of 10 minutes. We discussed our shared love for this style of cinema and I told him how I’d love to see the short made into a feature, since there’s clearly enough material to do so. He agreed, and said it was likely going to happen.

I love getting in line for a movie and asking others, “what have you seen?” I sat next to a woman in a screening who had written her reactions to the films she had seen in her programs. She was a sci-fi fan and spent several minutes talking about what had stuck with her during the festival. I worked as a volunteer in theater operations, which gave me a lot of downtime in-between screenings. Talking to other volunteers about movies for hours was a rare opportunity for me to discuss one of my favorite subjects at length without getting disapproving glances or feeling like I’ve overstayed my welcome. I met friends who were always eager to discuss further.

That’s ultimately what makes festivals like the Phoenix Film Festival so rare, and so special. That shared passion, the ability to watch 4, 5, 6 movies in a row and still be excited about it, is infectious. That breathless anticipation during the opening credits, and either the slow build of satisfaction or the mounting dread of disappointment are something the audience shares together. We all go on the same journey, though we experience it in different ways.

I suppose the same can be said for life. In this microcosm of existence known as a film festival, the question is often the same: “what have you seen?” But in the answer lies the endless possibility of lifetimes.

Midnight Special review

Writer-Director Jeff Nichols has made a career out telling riveting tales about lonely outsiders who don’t seem to fit in. Films like Mud and Take Shelter have also been populated with spectacular performances and a healthy dose of realism. With Midnight Special, Nichols has taken his favorite themes and styles into the science-fiction genre. The results are uniformly spectacular.

The film’s story is drenched in mystery and intrigue, so it’s a hard one to convey without giving away what makes it unique. It opens on Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), an 8-year-old who is…very odd, to say the least. He wears thick goggles and large, obtrusive headphones. A newscast informs us that he has been kidnapped from his “home,” a Texas cult compound known as The Ranch. What’s odd about this kidnapping is that he has been taken by his father, Roy (a typically excellent Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They’re locked in a hotel room, the windows covered by cardboard. Although Roy is Alton’s father, the boy has been under the legal guardianship of the Ranch’s charismatic leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) for the past few years. It appears that the acolytes of The Ranch, including Roy, have been worshipping Alton as some kind of prophet. Because Alton isn’t just a little different. He recites strings of numbers. He speaks in languages he doesn’t know, and some that don’t even exist. He picks up cryptic satellite frequencies. It’s been said that he causes fevered visions in those he comes into contact with, visions that cause people to drop their lives and follow him. To where, exactly? His followers believe that Alton is the only one who can save them from an impending apocalypse.

The U.S. government, as is often the case, is interested in Alton for different reasons. They’ve heard Meyer’s sermons, and believe Alton may be receiving and reciting classified government data. So the FBI sends in a specialist from the NSA (Adam Driver), who believes he can decode the messages Alton is receiving and figure out their true purpose. Meanwhile, Alton’s powers are becoming increasingly unstable, and his mother (Kirsten Dunst) fears his health is weakening to the point where he may die before his preordained (and very mysterious) date with destiny.

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Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller is filled with intense scenes, memorable performances and potent themes.

The plot is decidedly kooky, as sci-fi plots often are, but this one is especially so. The film teases information and revelations out at such a slow pace (and sometimes not at all), that we never quite feel comfortable in its universe. This is, of course, very deliberate, but what prevents the film from going off the rails is the realism Nichols brings to the proceedings. From its tone to its storytelling and performances, Midnight Special’s odd events feel like they could be taking place in the real world. With so many sci-fi films focused on elaborate special effects and artificial chrome skylines, the grittiness that exudes through every pore of the film is a welcome change.

The world “gritty” has lost much of its meaning in our modern film vocabulary, but Midnight Special is gritty in the old-fashioned sense. It’s not deliberately “dark” or “edgy” in order to appeal to the disillusioned youths. “Gritty,” for me, means that we see the hardships the characters endure, the struggles they face. They may become literally caked in mud, or they may reveal their deep hurts in more subtle ways. Even “gritty” movies can be filled with air-brushed actors, heroes who never seem to bruise or bleed despite wall-to-wall action. This film is interested in none of that. Like Nichols’ previous work, it’s more interested in sneaking up on you, immersing you in an anything-but-ephemeral time and space.

The other aspect that really sells the film is the performances. Michael Shannon, Nichols’ go-to actor, has never been better. Despite the machinations of the complex plot, Roy remains a very committed father wanting what is best for his son, and that sort of primal instinct to put family above all else is something most of us can relate to. The same goes for Dunst, who has been experiencing sort of a career renaissance. Along with her amazing work on Fargo, she continues to master the balance between subtle, heartbreaking desperation and strong, deep-seated resolve. Edgerton and Driver deliver fine work as well, but of course a film like this lives or dies on a child performance. Thankfully, Lieberher is more than up to the task. He nails Alton’s mix of odd and endearing. He very much drives the film’s events (and is in many ways, quite dangerous), but we also never forget that he is just a kid, and he is often as afraid of himself as other are in awe of him. The 12-year-old actor has gotten an enviable amount of work in just a few years, and his performance here proves he will continue to be highly in demand.

The aspect of Midnight Special that most makes it, well…special, however is its ultimate optimism. I’ve tired of sci-fi dystopia and aliens hell-bent on our destruction, and I imagine many filmgoers have as well. The film’s central mystery is intriguing, but the journey itself is engaging primarily because the emotions driving it are simple. The bonds of family are stronger than almost any other we can form in this world, and they’re sturdy enough to weather any storm. We all desire a place where we can fit in, where we can truly call home. The film’s climax reflects these themes in ways that are both surprising and effective.

Midnight Special is a slow burn, and its esoteric plot may prove too cryptic for some viewers. But, for this sci-fi geek, this beguiling mix of E.T. and Dark City is a mystery that features potent performances and themes well worth diving into.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. attempt to set up an extended DC Comics universe to rival Marvel’s movie empire, suffers from a curious form of blockbuster malady. It tries to give us too much in some areas and not enough in others, expecting that the extravagances and the restraints will balance each other out to create a satisfying flick. But that’s not how movies work, and I feel like there’s enough talented people backing this project to know that. Still, the result is a movie that feels like it will end up pleasing no one.

The this-is-all-too-much side of the equation comes mostly in the form of the story. Penned by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, the plot begins intriguingly, with an excellent opening focused on the destruction caused by Superman (Henry Cavill) during the climactic battle in Man of Steel. It turns out that Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) was in Metropolis when the chaos was raining down on the city, and a building filled with his employees was destroyed. Wayne sees Superman as a powerful and destructive force that answers to no man, and vows to destroy him.

Meanwhile, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, sees reports of the increasingly brutal vigilante justice being metered out by Batman in neighboring Gotham City. He sees Batman as the true threat to justice. But humanity, reeling from the fact that a god is walking among them, is much more concerned with Superman. A senator (Holly Hunter) has begun holding hearings about Superman in an attempt to hold him accountable for the destruction he has caused. And in the middle of it all is the wily Lex Luthor (played with unambiguous glee by Jesse Eisenberg), who sees the bad blood brewing between the two superpowers and immediately begins concocting a plan to exploit it in the hopes that the two will take each other out for good.

The first hour or so is mostly engaging, with a clear, compelling conflict and character motivations. The film raises some provocative questions about the nature of justice and the relationship between god and man. Even as the film goes on, the plot doesn’t get any more overstuffed than your average comic-based film. But the structure of the story is immensely problematic. It’s hard to remember a big-budget tent pole flick this lazily constructed. Some scenes seem to be dropped haphazardly in random sequence. We jump back and forth between characters, sometimes mid-conversation, which disrupts any sort of flow the movie is trying to maintain. Odd dream sequences frequently take us out of the story, and some character decisions later in the film seem rushed and poorly developed. At 2.5 hours, this bad boy could have used some major cutting.

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If Batman v Superman is the future of the comic-based blockbuster, it looks to be a dark, dull and dreary one.

Director Zack Snyder, who also helmed Man of Steel, has never met a metaphor he couldn’t bludgeon to death, and so we get lots more painfully obvious religious symbolism surrounding Superman. We also get tons of ridiculous dialogue from Luthor which sounds like it was written just to make the trailer sound EPIC (bludgeoned even further by Eisenberg, who seems like a really wrong choice for the character). Add in bombastic sound effects and an overbearing Hans Zimmer score (who disappoints after his excellent work on Man of Steel) and you have a senses-draining headache on your hands.

The filmmakers attempt to rein in some of this grandiosity by exercising restraint in key areas. Unfortunately, these areas are important, and so the film’s glimpses of excellence aren’t given the depth or care they deserve. Fans were concerned when Ben Affleck was cast as Bruce Wayne, but I love his portrayal as an older, wearied Bruce pondering his legacy. As a man with little left to lose, it’s easy to understand why he would put himself in so much danger to take down what he sees as a menace, even if said menace is an unstoppable god. He has some nice scenes with his perennial butler Alfred (played here by the always-welcome Jeremy Irons). I wish Bruce, and especially Aflred, had gotten more screen time, because once Wayne dons the bat suit, things go south. This version of Batman is reckless and seemingly has no issue shooting at bad guys and blowing up their cars. For a guy attempting to rein in an all-powerful alien’s destructive habits, he sure doesn’t seem to care much about his own collateral damage. He even gets to help smash some buildings that (for all we know), may still have people inside during the film’s climactic fight (we do get a throwaway line from a newscaster claiming that downtown is “deserted” after working hours, but how could he know that for sure?).

We are also introduced to Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who I suspect will be the favorite character in the film for many. Since we’ve never had an adequate big-screen version of this iconic character, I enjoyed every second of her all-too-brief appearances. She totally kicks ass.

But characters like Wonder Woman reveal the film’s biggest deficiency: it’s that darn subtitle. No one here is masking that the film is one grand set-up for the upcoming Justice League movie. As a result, Batman v Superman is the very definition of a placeholder (albeit a very expensive one). About halfway through, I resigned myself to the fact that the film would be dispensing with character development almost entirely. The vast majority of plot developments and character motivations exist to get a person from one place to another so that they can do a thing that will set off another thing. Stuff happens, things explode and bad guys are defeated. We gain precious few insights into why characters are the way they are, or how the events of this film changed them. They’re all pawns in a very long chess game (returning characters such as Lois Lane and Perry White may as well not be in the film at all).

It’s a darn shame, because this story had great potential. But the sum total is a gorgeous looking, expensive production almost entirely bereft of meaning, one that raises provocative questions it doesn’t feel equipped to explore. Batman v Superman reminds me of those dark days in the mid-00’s when most superhero movies were overly gritty, mostly terrible and no fun at all. Let’s hope the sub-genre’s future isn’t content to turn more cool ideas into dull slogs like this one.

What Han Solo taught me about Easter

 

One of my favorite scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is the one where new characters Finn and Daisy first come across the infamous space rogue Han Solo and his longtime Wookie companion Chewbacca. When asked about the ancient myth of the Jedi and the force that surrounds the universe, Han replies, “It’s true. All of it.”

What gives this line so much meaning is that this wasn’t always Han’s conclusion. In the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, Han is outright dismissive of the Force, telling Luke Skywalker, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.”

We, of course, know Han Solo is wrong, but the pleasure of his journey, so expertly capitalized upon in The Force Awakens, is seeing him accept this realization for himself. There are things he doesn’t understand about the universe, things he can’t even see. And Han, ever the pragmatist, denies they exist because he hasn’t seen the evidence for himself.

But his admission 30 years later changes all of that. He is now telling fellow doubters that the things he once refused to believe in are true. All of them.

I’ve thought quite a bit about Han’s realization during Holy Week. I think we often treat the resurrection of Christ in the same way Han initially treated the force. A man rising from the dead? How can such a thing be true?

imagesWe live in a pragmatic, logical society, and this is in many ways a good thing. We are naturally skeptical until we have reason to believe otherwise. We value science and evidence-based convictions, much as Han did when he told Luke, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

But our faith in science only takes us so far, before it becomes just that, faith. We can become so obsessed with what we can observe, what we in fact can witness with our own eyes, that any other way of experiencing the world is dismissed out of hand. We somehow think that science will solve all of our problems, that it will save us from ourselves, despite the fact that the study of science is done by human hands. We need only to look at the atom bomb and two world wars to convince us that our salvation is not found in science alone.

Two famous skeptics, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel, were a lot like young Han. They were so obsessed with evidence that they set out to disprove Christianity and the existence of God entirely. They didn’t do a very good job. Both became staunch Christian apologists, and they did so primarily by examining the evidence they were so hoping would lead to a different conclusion. If all things are created by God, then science, like everything else, points back to the majesty of the creator.

As Strobel has written, “Christianity is a very historical religion. It makes specific claims that are open to testing.” He also said, “I think it’s very healthy to use journalistic and legal techniques to investigate the evidence for and against Christianity and other faith systems.”

Doing so is not only healthy, but essential. One of the things I love about the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ is that they strike me as very journalistic. Four men, approaching the same story from four different angles, astonishingly came to the same conclusions. Luke, a doctor by profession, was particularly interested in providing an orderly and accurate account of what transpired during Jesus’ three years of ministry, along with his eventual death and resurrection.

Luke tells Theophilus, to whom his gospel account is addressed, that he intended “to write an orderly account…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).

The story of Easter is not some far-away fairy tale, but a story rooted in many of the things our society holds dear. Archaeology, science, history…it all points to the risen Christ.

“Points” is the operative word here. None of these things, on their own or combined, irrefutably prove that Christ was raised from the dead three days after he was crucified and buried. There is, of course, a strong element of faith to, well…faith. Christianity is both intellectual and experiential. Han Solo could have seen evidence of the force and still not believed, because doing so would require a change of perspective in his life. It would require him to reorder his priorities, to abandon some of the things that had previously brought him joy. His life would never be the same.

We can assert the veracity of the story of Christ’s resurrection all day, but if we don’t allow it to penetrate our hearts, to reorder our lives in response, that we haven’t really been listening. Some people may never feel like they will be able to take that step of faith to surrender their lives in this way. But the Easter story reminds us that it is, indeed, just a step. Tomorrow there will be another. And the day after, another. Before we know it, Christ has changed us from the inside out.

As Easter approaches, I think of Han Solo’s confession, informed by both rational study and the realization that there are some things about the universe that will never fit neatly into his compartmentalized mind. “It’s true…all of it.” As I look upon the resurrected Christ, I repeat these words with awe, wonder and the realization that it changes everything.

That Dragon, Cancer and the art of surrender

I can’t get baby Joel to stop crying. He doesn’t want his juice box. He doesn’t want me to hold him. As his wails grow louder and more pained, I seem to be out of options. I resign to telling my son that I can’t make him feel better, words no father ever wants to say.

It seems odd for a video game to give you a goal you can’t achieve, but that’s just one of the things that makes That Dragon, Cancer special. The game is a haunting, painful and yet beautiful interactive poem, created by Ryan and Amy Green, along with developer Josh Larson, to tell the story of their young child’s real-life battle with—and eventual loss to—cancer at the age of five.

“Interactive poem” is a better term for the title than video game. There aren’t any traditional goals, and the ones given to you seem awfully mundane. Feed the ducks at the pond. Examine pictures in a hallway. Push baby Joel on a swing. The game seems more concerned with guiding you through the events being depicted rather than letting you having any say in how these events play out. Which is, of course, the point.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family's real-life encounter with cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer is a devastating interactive story of a family’s real-life encounter with cancer.

Gaming is often goal-oriented, asking us to solve problems and achieve things to make ourselves feel accomplished. We usually expect a reward in return. That Dragon, Cancer is part of a recent trend of “empathy games” that take a different route. More often autobiographical in nature, the goal of empathy games is to put the gamer in someone else’s shoes; perhaps a real person facing real emotions, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. No bullet sponges or high speed chases here. In the ongoing conversation of games as art, the idea that games can allow us to connect with others in the way a great novel or film can has been a difficult hurdle for the medium to overcome. And yet, I never thought I would emphasize with the identity struggles of a lesbian teenager until I played Gone Home. And The Stanley Parable messed with my conceptions of free will and storytelling as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

That Dragon, Cancer is simpler than those games, and yet infinitely richer in its emotional impact. By giving us an impossible task (save Joel from dying) and asking us to control it, the Greens reveal to us the futility of human endeavor, especially when it comes to trying to make sense of unexpected tragedy. One of the game’s more creative examples of this is when the player is tasked with guiding a flying Joel through a minefield of cancer cells. Joel is held up by balloons, and once those balloons pop, he will fall. As the cancer cells continue to multiply and navigating the field becomes harder, I realize that I’m not supposed to win. Eventually, I have to surrender to the makers of the game and fail at this particular task in order to proceed.

Surrender is a big theme in the game, specifically, to God. Not that doing so was easy for the Greens. Throughout the game, the player reads letters the husband and wife wrote to one another. Amy always appears cheerful, resting in the hope that God will hear her prayers and heal Joel.

“I pray I find God’s wisdom in the midst of chaos,” she says. “My doubt is insignificant compared to God’s faithfulness.”

Ryan tries to remain hopeful, but is often jealous of Amy’s cheery outlook on their son’s increasingly grim situation.

“My wife is expecting a surprise party from the Lord…I envy her,” he says.

Ryan and Amy’s prayers seem to have got them through this tough season, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do their part. They moved with their two other sons to California from Colorado just to try an alternative treatment for Joel. They (and by extension, the player) spent many sleepless nights in the hospital. They tried just about everything they could, but in the scene where the doctors come to announce that there isn’t anything else they can do, the game shifts. We’re no longer battling the cancer; we’re battling the voices of fear, doubt and pain that emerge in Ryan and Amy’s heads. We’re asked to resign ourselves to the fact that prayer is the only thing we have left to do.

The game’s Steam reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but most of the negative reviews complain about its blatant religious overtones. Those opinions are valid, but they miss the point. The Greens’ personal experience is not universally relatable, nor should it be. Their strong Christian faith is no less a part of their story than Joel himself. To diminish its importance in order to appeal to a wider audience would be disingenuous.

But the Greens’ Christian faith isn’t something they just conjured up to make them feel better about their baby’s death. It’s an all-encompassing hope that protrudes into every area of their life. Prayer doesn’t always have to bring tangible results to have value. Faith doesn’t always bring the healing we desire it to. God isn’t a personal genie we conjure up when we need things from him, but God is there in the midst of our pain, and he fights for us and with us.

“Grace is…kind of like help,” Amy narrates as the player fights the fire-breathing dragon of cancer as an avatar of Joel decked in armor. “We know that God fights for Joel, even when he can’t fight for himself.” It is then that grace appears as a majestic golden eagle, lifting up Joel after he is felled by a fireball.images

That faith-filled hope is driven home in the game’s ending, where I am tasked with lighting candles in church to pray for Joel’s healing. Each candle is tied to a specific prayer, and as I attempt to light all the candles at once, a symphony of prayers rise, united in their diversity. Of course, we already know those prayers weren’t answered, at least in the way we would have liked them to be, but for Christians the good news is that even this is not the end of the story. Death never has the final say, and neither does cancer. Without giving anything more away, I even get to see Joel one more time before the credits roll.

Yes, That Dragon, Cancer is an unapologetically Christian examination of death and tragedy. It’s also probably the first Christian video game that can be considered great art. From its beautiful soundtrack to its creative use of shifting perspective and haunting stylized visuals, the game is an artistic masterwork. It’s the closest we’ll get to an interactive The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s a potent reminder that the world needs good Christian art. Stories like the ones the Greens have shared are valuable stories that need to be told—stories of God’s grace and provision through life’s up and (especially) downs. We don’t want to play or watch a religious tract or a Sunday school sermon. Just give us a story, and tell it well. And while you’re at it, give us a few tissues.

That Dragon, Cancer is on sale on Steam through March 21. You can purchase it here. 

Oscars: Why Mad Max: Fury Road should win Best Picture (and why it won’t)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is facing a bit of an identity crisis these days. Many people see the membership organization that votes upon who takes home Oscar trophies as out-of-touch and lacking in diversity, as evidenced by the recent #oscarssowhite campaign that was all over social media. This led to a recent decision by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to announce that the Academy would be dramatically overhauling its membership to include more (younger) persons of color.

But the Academy’s lack of diversity extends far beyond race. It also shows itself in the movies that often take home the top prize. The term “Oscar bait” has been used for years to describe the bland, safe, “important” movies (often biopics) that the Academy seems to go nuts over, usually to the detriment of a more worthy Best Picture nominee. Recent examples include the inexplicable victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain, or The King’s Speech instead of The Social Network.

Then there’s the issue that the winner each year is often a movie few people have seen. The Academy attempted to address this popularity issue in 2009 when it allowed up to 10 movies to be considered in the running for the top prize (up from the previous cutoff at 5). The goal, people seemed to think, was for excellent, overlooked genre fair like The Dark Knight to at least be considered for the major award. Then, people could tune in to see their favorite popular movie lose, but at least with the knowledge that it wasn’t relegated entirely to the technical categories.

This hope proved short-lived. The obvious recent example of why this system has already broken down is The Avengers. Marvel’s smash comic-based hit could have easily snagged the 10th spot for consideration in the 2012 ceremony. And yet, nine films ended up nominated. Why bother with 10 spots if you’re not going to fill them with the very movies that they were created for?

With this troubled history comes the electrifying tale of Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller’s ferocious action masterpiece reinvigorated a franchise we didn’t even know we still wanted, and did it with incredible technical panache. The Academy took notice: Fury Road has a total of 10 nominations, blasting its way out of the technical categories to consideration for awards like Best picture, directing and editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

Mad Max: Fury Road is richly deserving of Best Picture status, but is probably still a bit too wild for the Academy.

It’s great that, like everyone else, the Academy has taken notice of the finest action film of this decade. But, while Mad Max has many reasons to take home the top prize, I’m still not convinced it will. Here are three reasons why it should, followed by three reasons why it won’t.

  1. It’s a prestige picture

Fury Road is known first and foremost as a balls-to-the-wall action epic, and it fits that bill nicely. But it’s also the rare action film that was a smash hit with both audiences and critics. It has won numerous best-of-year awards from critics groups, and the consensus is pretty overwhelming. This catapults the film far beyond ever your typically excellent action fare. For both its pedigree and popularity, the Academy would be wise to award it the top prize.

  1. It would be historic

The Academy seems to take its sweet time catching up with history. In 87 years, a straight-up action film has never taken home the top prize (historical epics like Braveheart, war films or genre mashups like The French Connection are the closest we’ve gotten). No science-fiction film has won. Fantasy films got their due when Return of the King won in 2003, but little has been heard from them since. Audiences tend to speak with their wallets, and money talks. Many of the highest grossing movies of all-time are action films. Now, popularity does not always equal quality (a statement that describes the career of Michael Bay perfectly), but that clearly does not apply in this case.

  1. The Academy is getting weird

Fury Road is an undeniably bizarre film. Legendary Aussie auteur George Miller brought his trademark eye for original designs and odd humor (hello, Mr. Doof) to the table, proving that you can make a movie everyone loves without actually caring about what they think. Fury Road is the ultimate middle-finger to the market-researched summer blockbuster. It was made by a passionate group of people committed to a unique vision. How often do $100 million-plus action movies follow that description? In many ways, it seems like the textbook definition of what might turn the Academy off.

But that all changed last year, when the Academy awarded Best Picture to Birdman. That insane, inspired masterwork proved that, perhaps, the Academy was ready to embrace the weird. That same year, beloved indie auteurs like Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater shared space with more traditional Oscar fare like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. What better way to continue that embrace of diverse voices than to award a gonzo action picture?

And now, why it still won’t win:

  1. It’s an action movie

Yep. Despite the Academy’s embrace of less traditional fare in more recent years, Fury Road is still an action movie. I fear the genre has too much stigma attached to it—it’s generally seen as not “important” enough. The Academy doesn’t often like to award movies without clear “messages.” While Fury Road has a rich and meaningful subtext beneath its non-stop violence, that’s still probably too subtle for the Academy at this point. Will they ever award Best Picture to an action movie? Yes, but I fear it might still be a while.

  1. It’s not the only action movie on the playground

You might have heard of a little flick called The Revenant. Alejandro Inarritu’s grueling survival tale swept the Golden Globes and seems to have some strong momentum going into the Oscars. Admittedly, Fury Road does as well. But The Revenant has the advantage of a prestige director (Inarritu took home the directing trophy last year) and imgrescinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki, gunning for his third straight prize). It’s certainly a non-stop action movie, but it doesn’t advertise itself as such in the same way as Fury Road. It’s artsy, and it very much attempts to say something meaningful. This means the Academy will love it, and it might feel like it can fulfill their obligation to finally award an action movie by giving the gold to The Revenant instead.

  1. It’s not actually the Best Picture

I’m ready and willing to admit that Fury Road is not actually the Best Picture in the running. That would be Spotlight or Room, two films I would be overjoyed to see win. This is less of a complaint and more of a reality check. Perhaps the Academy will award a talky, witty film like The Big Short, also a genre buster for being a comedy. Or perhaps The Martian, a film that, much like Fury Road, expertly balanced the line between critical darling and commercial smash.

Rarely has the Best Picture race felt so wide-open. This is a good thing. The field of contenders is quite strong, which speaks well to the strengths of Fury Road but also probably hurts its chances. Still, I’ll be cheering on Miller and company. Cinema this bold, exhilarating and uncompromising deserves to be celebrated.