Tag Archives: movies


Dear White People, I’mma Need You to See This Movie

DWP1One of the great ironies of Justin Simien’s masterful directorial debut, Dear White People, which released in theaters nationwide this last weekend, is that although it’s aimed at white people, it’s not about white people.

And just now as I was writing, I was tempted to use another, less weaponized-sounding verb, but truly, “aimed” is the right choice, because Dear White People is relentless in its depiction of white people as alternately clueless, ambivalent or calculatingly sinister regarding the racial issues on display at fictional ivy-league school Winchester University. And I mean that as a compliment.

In ways both obvious and subtle, it makes Big Important Pronouncements about race, and then uses those pronouncements both as occasional comedic sketch premises, but also as plot devices to flesh out the emotional development of its main characters, all of whom are either black or biracial. The combination of the two, the thematic heavy-handedness modulated by a playful tone of nimble vignettes with varying emotional intensity… it’s quite a balancing act to pull off, akin to performing surgery with a shotgun.


Tomorrow’s Lesson: Dying Is the Way to Live

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.'”
— Matthew 16:24-25, New International Version 
And why should we ourselves risk our lives hour by hour? For I swear, dear brothers and sisters, that I face death daily. This is as certain as my pride in what Christ Jesus our Lord has done in you. And what value was there in fighting wild beasts—those people of Ephesus—if there will be no resurrection from the dead? And if there is no resurrection, ‘Let’s feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!'”
1 Corinthians 15:30-32, New Living Translation
“I hope tomorrow will bring / a better you, a better me”
— Siedah Garrett (lyricist), Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me)

Thanks to the good people at Klout, I attended an advance screening of the Tom Cruise / Emily Blunt sci-fi action film “Edge of Tomorrow,”  and what I found surprised me.

First, it was good. Like, really good. Plenty of good old-fashioned action, but smartly paced and edited, moderated by a delicious time-travel premise, and magnified by two AAA-grade performances by Blunt and Cruise. If “Groundhog Day” and “District 9″* ever hooked up, had a child, and then hired F. Gary Gray’s “Italian Job” remake to babysit on the weekends, that film would grow up to be “Edge of Tomorrow.”


Just Saw Fred Claus. No, Really. It’s Good.

So I gave into a small guilty pleasure tonight.

I watched the movie on the airplane.

Usually if I’m watching a movie on an airplane, it’s something I’ve brought myself for that express purpose, and I’m watching it on my computer. I normally can’t stand watching the movies that the airlines play, because I hate craning my neck, staring at that tiny little screen, and listening to the terrible audio.

But I made an exception, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed it pretty thoroughly — more evidence that a fun story with compelling characters can cover a multitude of shortcomings. If a film’s characters are cardboard cutouts and the story does nothing interesting, then it can be showing on an IMAX screen ten times a day, for free, and I’ll still probably avoid it like the plague.

My guilty pleasure was last year’s Fred Claus, starring Vince Vaughn (The Break-Up, Dodgeball) and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, The Negotiator). Like many interesting pictures, Fred Claus is a mashup of three time-worn story archetypes, the wholesome holiday fairy tale, the fish-out-of-water tale, and the slacker-does-something-good-for-once story.

The heart and soul of the movie comes from the bond of two brothers – Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) and his maladjusted younger sibling Fred, frustrated and misunderstood after living in the shadow of his jolly, charismatic older brother.

I had relatively low expectations for this film, but found myself being pleasantly surprised over and over. Some of this was Vince Vaughn’s patented blend of abrasive charm. Despite maintaining the grounded, smart-alecky style of delivery that made him a star in the first place, many of Vaughn’s lines as Fred sound downright conservative. This is what makes Fred such a sympathetic character, because even though Fred doesn’t always make the best decisions, his heart is always in the right place – like when he lectures a young girl who attacks him for repossessing her family TV. That scene is golden.

Mostly, though, it was the interesting family dynamics that really pulled me in. In a sense, Fred Claus is like many holiday films based around families (The Family Stone, Dan in Real Life, This Christmas), except that the deftly-cast family involved just happens to belong to good ol’ Saint Nick.

As such, the movie has a winning way about it, because it manages to depict a well-known — but normally boring — character as a three dimensional figure. Sure, he’s Santa Claus, but first he’s a regular guy, who has regular guy issues. He struggles with enforcing his boundaries. He’s got weight issues. He has to deal with tension between his wife and his mother.

Most distressing is the pressure he receives from a joyless suit (Kevin Spacey) intent on cracking down on inefficiency at Santa’s workshop. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen that manages to make Santa Claus seem not only human, but downright vulnerable.

Fred Claus is not without its issues, of course. It still maintains many common Christmas movie clichés, including wrapping up every conflict way too neatly — gift-wrapped and bow-tied for the convenience of screenwriter and viewer alike. And for those who suffer from acute saccharine intolerance, there are a few scenes that will prompt bouts of eye-rolling and plenty of oh-please-give-me-a-break.

But staving off the overdose is a nice combination of levity and gravitas. Two of my favorite scenes have good amounts of both.


There’s a scene where Nick confronts his brother and the confrontation goes downhill, first into name-calling, and then into a full-on brawl. And then later there’s a scene where Fred visits a support group for siblings of famous people. (Cameos aplenty here.) In both scenes, the humor is undergirded by the simmering tension of decades worth of unresolved issues between the two brothers.

As Christian, I have to learn how to extract the laudable and virtuous elements from the other aspects that might not be in line with my standards or worldview – otherwise, I just wouldn’t watch any movies at all. Fred Claus is no exception. The main message is that troubled kids are just as deserving of love and attention as nice kids, and this is a great message that I wholeheartedly endorse. That this message is saddled with the baggage of ambiguously relativistic morals is unfortunate, and occasionally annoying.

Key example: the film’s shining reunion between Fred and his love interest [ANOTHER SPOILER] culminates in him magnanimously announcing that he’s moving into her apartment and they’ll be living together. The scene is written, shot and edited as a climactic, romantic proposal. His proposal, though, is mere cohabitation.

NOTE TO SCREENWRITERS: in a real family film, this couple would’ve actually gotten MARRIED. It’s called commitment, Vince Vaughn. Check it out sometime.

On the plus side, though, there is no profanity whatsoever, and very little crass humor. (One suggestively-costumed, cleavage-showing woman, and one fleeting reference to marital sexuality.)

That, combined with the powerful relationship between two adult brothers, makes Fred Claus more than worth the price of a rental. It might actually be the rare holiday film that is, dare I say, rewatchable.

Just make sure you don’t let any of those Santa-themed Christmas songs get stuck in your head. Those things are brutal.


Media fasting: an explanation, a decision… a lifestyle?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been perilously close to a state of crisis, emotionally speaking. A series of conditions surrounding my life, some of them I’ve spoken about, and many too private to blog about (yes, such things still exist in my world) have contributed to my being short-tempered, overly volatile, and generally living without much faith or hope. Which is a sad state for any human being, much less a worship-leading professional Christian like myself.

So I took a step recently, one which seemed rather drastic at first, but by the time I finished I wondered why it had taken me so long to try it.

I went on a media fast.

Three days without any television, radio, movies, video games, or non-essential internet usage (email mostly).

Now I realize that the true Biblical standard of fasting is to go without food, and so there are some who might read this and scoff. Going without food is a much more serious act of denial, a particularly visceral kind of longing that has especially transformational effects, the most profound of which have been discussed by many people more knowledgable than I.

But considering that, for awhile now, I’ve put much more thought, energy, and intentionality into the various forms of media that I consume than the food that I eat, I thought this move would suit me well, that is, if I had the cojones to actually try it. If nothing else, it would help me to slow down and pay attention to what I’m eating, since half the time I’m eating while I’m reading/watching/listening/playing.

(Not that I’m bragging about this… I want you to hear my heart here… this is definitely not something I’m proud of, but I realized I had a problem when I found myself wolfing down spoonfuls of cereal during a round of Halo 3. And doing pretty well, actually.)

I chose an interval of three days, because, well, it sounded sorta spiritual and my mentor Dan said three days sounded good. And I have to say, that the hardest part was that first Monday morning, when I got off the pillow, went downstairs to fix Holly some tea, and sat down to check my email.

And that was it. No checking headlines at the Tribune. No TrueHoop. No Slate.

Nothing but me and the Lord.

I read the daily Scripture email that comes into my inbox, which took me to the book of Isaiah. I read that verse, and the accompanying chapter, and then I just sat and thought for awhile. Which is not new, of course.

What was new was that I was aware of my thoughts. I could, for the first time in awhile, actually hear myself thinking.

And it made it much easier to pray, because then all I was doing was redirecting those thoughts toward God in prayer.

Now, I take no pride in my prayer life. Not that I don’t pray a lot — I pray all the time. It’s just that my prayer life sucks, because most of the time I’m only thinking of myself. If somehow my everyday, sitting-at-the-computer, laying-on-my-bed, behind-the-wheel prayers were to be recorded, I would be ashamed to play them back, because they would mostly consist of halfhearted commitments, worrying, complaining, and self-centered requests.

The good thing about removing all of the mental noise from my life is that I can actually listen to myself pray. And that is motivating, because the more I do it, the more I can hear how pathetic I sound, and then the more I can instead choose to focus on God and His glory, His plan, His desire for my day.

Now that I’m off of my media fast, I’ve sort of gorged myself. NBA Finals Game 4 last night, Ed Norton in The Incredible Hulk this afternoon, and a rousing round of Halo 3 with friends tonight. I hope I’m not overdoing it, I’m just taking the time to do things that I enjoy with people that I enjoy hanging with (the homies at church, my brother Jomo, and my buddy John, respectively).

Which brings me to another benefit of media fasting… it helps me to prioritize my media consumption, which helps me to differentiate between things that are Truly Important and things that are just Distractions. Which is tricky, because often things that are generally important (paying bills online, listening to gospel music, staying up on local and national news) can distract me from the thing that God may want me to do in the moment.

But not only that, sometimes I get distracted from things that are actually fun and enjoyable just because something else popped up in front of me and it’s taking up my attention. So there’s something good about being able to know that on a Sunday evening I can watch a movie or I can play a video game, but chances are I won’t be able to do both. Whichever one is more appealing and/or important to me, I’ll do — and the other one I’ll also get to do — later.

It’s called delayed gratification, folks. And right now I’m not so good at it.

But if I keep this up, hopefully I will be. Which is what I’m planning to do. I’m going to do it again next week. And maybe the week after that, I don’t know.

I’m hoping that eventually this will become part of my life rhythm. Some days it’s okay to get swept away in fantastic action sequences and heartrending drama. On the other hand, some days you just gotta embrace the real life that’s happening right in front of you.

And if fasting from food can be even more beneficial, then I should try it. I was about to type, “I can’t wait to try it” but then I remembered — fasting means you don’t eat.

Yeah, so it might be awhile before I’m ready to do that.

Umm… I mean… not my will, Lord, but thine.

Don’t take the cup from me just yet, God.

Especially if it has a smoothie in it.

I’m just sayin.’