Monthly Archives: June 2012

Best Films of the First Half

Another year half-way through, another pause to reflect on the best films of the first half. Last year by this time, The Tree of Life topped my list, followed by Meek’s Cutoff. Below are my picks for the five best films I’ve seen in theaters in the first six months of 2012:

1) The Kid With a Bike: The latest from Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is perhaps their most masterful yet. No other film this year affected me as much as this, a deeply humane portrait about a father, his son, a bike, and a search. Riffing on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, the Dardennes offer up a characteristically nuanced, minimalist, jarring look inside a world both foreign and intensely familiar. The little bursts of Beethoven are just icing on the cake. (my review)

2) Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson’s beautiful film is one of the best films about childhood I’ve ever seen. It captures–in characteristically colorful, deadpan, boxed-in form–the magical spaces in which children dwell: playing, exploring, flirting with danger and adulthood, taking in the world with wonder and curiosity. More than just a stylistic exercise (Anderson’s films can sometimes fall in this trap), Moonrise is a somber, poetic “coming of age” story with profound things to observe about how children experience the world. (my review)

3) The Grey: I didn’t expect much more from Joe Carnahan’s film than a  typical “angry Liam Neeson” action flick. But man is it more than that. It’s a tough-as-nails film; gritty and masculine to the core. And yet it’s also deeply poetic, existential and surprisingly emotionally jarring. Especially in the last 30 minutes of so, The Grey really punches you in the gut. (my review)

4) Bernie: Richard Linklater’s true crime tragicomedy is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Not only does it feature a remarkable performance from Jack Black as the title character (by far Black’s best acting to date), but it also tackles pretty weighty questions about morality and justice. Linklater’s affection for the particularities of small-town Texas (his home state) also lends Bernie a special personality that makes it stand out as a truly fresh and original, rather uncategorizable film.

5) Undefeated: Essentially a documentary version of the latter seasons of Friday Night Lights,  this Oscar-nominated film follows the 2009 football season of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a school more familiar with metal detectors and juvenile detention than with winning football games. The narratives of Coach Bill Courtney and a handful of players he shapes and mentors   are utterly compelling and emotionally wrenching. It’s a hard film to watch with dry eyes. (my review)

Honorable Mention: Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, The Avengers, Haywire, Cabin in the Woods

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Prometheus

The Avengers was a great, entertaining summer film, and yet I’m pretty sure I stopped thinking about it before I even pulled out of the parking lot of the movie theater. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is also great entertainment, and yet two days after seeing it I have yet to stop thinking about it. This is not to say that the latter is smarter than the former. Both of these films are smart as well as entertaining. But Prometheus actually wrestles with interesting questions and asks the audience to wrestle with them as well, which I almost always prefer to the “that was fun!” one-off popcorn movie.

Prometheus has a lot going on. A lot of big-picture, metaphysical questions about  existence, creation, evolution, etc. Questions come fast in furious in the film, far more than answers do. It’s a film that–like any given Lost episode–allows the audience to merely see one part of what is obviously a much bigger reality (Lost’s Damon Lindelof wrote Prometheus). I won’t speculate here about what lies beyond the limited field of view of this film (I’m not a fanboy), but I do have some  scattered thoughts on what we do see in Prometheusand I’ll share some of them below (SPOILERS ahead!).

I think the film can be read as a dark, secularist’s perversion of the Christian narrative–particularly the theology of Incarnation. Images of Christmas and Incarnation abound in the film, albeit with a horrific twist. The Christmas tree aboard the ship tips us off to this motif. The events of the film unfold (not coincidentally) during Christmas. But the most visceral nod to Incarnation is the actual literal entrance of the alien species into the body of the film’s heroine, Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace).

Christians celebrate Christmas as the moment that the Creator took up residence within his creation, humbling himself to the place of a tiny fetus within Mary’s womb. In Prometheus, we are led to believe that the creatures the humans encounter are in some sense their own Creator Gods (“Engineers”), and yet when one of their biological creations sprouts inside Dr. Shaw’s womb, the results are far less “Emmanuel” than they are “Get this monster out of me!”

In Prometheus, Scott’s vision of the relationship between Creator and created is one of spite and hostility. In the Christian narrative, God is a benevolent creator who takes on the form of his creation so he can rescue and redeem those he created in his image. In Prometheus, the “gods” also seem to have created man in their image, and yet they despise humanity and want to destroy it. Incarnation for the purposes of redemption is re-imagined as infection for the purposes of eradication.

The hubris of the humans in the film is that they assume that once contact is made with the “Engineers,” it will be a pleasant experience–that Creator and created will be reunited in a lovely moment of discovery and redemption. But of course, it doesn’t turn out that way.

Meanwhile, the humans are themselves “engineers/creators,” having spawned robot creators like “David” (the phenomenal Michael Fassbender) in their own image. But the humans resent David because he is fundamentally different than them: lesser, devoid of soul. Why should they expect that those who engineered humanity would feel any differently toward their “lesser” offspring? Indeed, Scott’s vision of the “Creator” perspective on creation is one of resentment, disgust and hostility rather than sacrificial love. Humans are misguided, pride-driven fools if they expect to be welcomed with open arms by the vastly superior Engineers who created them, Scott seems to suggest.

Certainly Scott is correct to chastise the pride of man and his penchant toward self-destructive hubris; and he’s also right to paint in more favorable light the characters who shun the need “to know” and end up saving mankind when they sacrifice their lives to prevent the alien ship from leaving for earth.

Yet Scott also seems to critique the very notion of curiosity and discovery–man’s wiring to inquire about his origins and his Creator. Is it science Scott is critiquing? Religion? Both seem to drive the Prometheus and its crew in their ill-fated expedition.  If the film has a bone to pick with Christianity, it has at least as much of a beef with science and industry–the innovations of mankind which are simultaneously his most crowning glory and most explosive source of destruction. Indeed, Prometheus is on one hand a showcase for the impressive creativity and reach of mankind (the technology, the ship, the weapons, the robots are given more than just passing screentime). But on the other hand, the film’s quick “in over their heads” descent into hell demonstrates the humility of mankind against the vast mysteries of the universe that remain outside our reach.     The film seems to go outside of its way to hammer home the point that–in juxtaposition to other alien species and unexplained phenomena–earthlings are not especially savvy, adaptive or impressive.

Scott may well intend all of this to add up to a cynical view of humanity, religion, and our hapless tendency to destroy that which we create. And yet something about the film also evokes–perhaps inadvertently–a sense of wonder and worship. What does lie beyond? The unapologetic open-endedness of the film’s inquiries puts man in his place and yet affirms the validity of our skyward-gaping curiosity. The film may slap humanity on the wrist for its reckless hubris, yet ultimately it seems to suggest that there is something valuable to discover in our search for answers. And though many may die trying, it might still be worth the pursuit.

24 Social Media Dos and Don’ts

As part of the Biola Digital Ministry Conference this week, I gave a seminar entitled “Becoming Social Media Savvy Without Losing Your Soul,” in which I discussed the etiquette of social media and some of the potentials and pitfalls in how we can use it as Christians. What does it mean to represent Christ in the social media space? To get at this question, my presentation included 12 “dos” of social media and 12 “don’t.” Here they are below, starting with the “don’ts.”

DONTS:

  1. Don’t tweet mostly about yourself. What you are doing, speaking engagements, travel, how cool you are.
  2. Don’t think about an experience mostly in terms of how you might share it on social media. (i.e. when you’re at a beautiful beach on vacation, don’t think about how you can share a picture of it on Instagram)
  3. Don’t retweet only things that say good things about you or your book, your product or your brand. Promote others’ content more than your own.
  4. Don’t include “Please RT!” in your tweets, use bad English, too many WORDS IN ALL CAPS, or too many !!!!
  5. Don’t crowd your social feeds with “check-ins” from all the glamorous places you’ve been. #Humblebrag
  6. Don’t tweet or post something in a highly emotional state or without taking time to consider whether it should be shared or not.
  7. Don’t post important life news on social media before communicating to your closest friends/family in person.
  8. Don’t spend more time on social media than you spend communicating to people face to face.
  9. Don’t flaunt your relationships by having public interactions on social media. Talk to people privately. Email, chat, direct message will do just fine.
  10. Don’t have awkward fights or edgy back-and-forths in public.
  11. Don’t revert to a junior high name-calling voice or pick fights.
  12. Don’t tweet something with big implications without running it by a few people. (e.g. “Farewell Rob Bell.”)

DOS:

  1. Promote the good, interesting, useful work of others; direct people to helpful resources that aren’t produced by you.
  2. Share things that you know your audience will find valuable. Think of their interests before your own. (e.g. If you are a food critic, tweet about the best new restaurant you’ve found. You’re audience is following you for your expertise in stuff like this).
  3. Respond to people’s questions when they ask them; ask your audience questions. Interact.
  4. Say thanks to people who say something nice to you or about you on social media.
  5. Be positive, affirming, uplifting, earnest (rather than negative, cynical, critical, ironic).
  6. When you do post about yourself, don’t be overly mechanic or self-aware. Be natural, real, authentic.
  7. If you lead a church/ministry, be especially careful how you communicate on social media. You are representing your church/ministry, whether you want to or not. And for any Christian: you are representing Christ.
  8. Let others talk up your books, articles, or products on social media. On occasion, feel free to retweet the praise-giving tweets of others (but only rarely).
  9. Use social media to bless others: share Bible verses, affirmative quotes… things that can brighten another’s day and/or spread the gospel. Those types of messages resonate.
  10. Use social media to enhance communities but not replace them.
  11. Quickly communicate important and timely information (e.g. if you are a church: service times, last minute venue changes, etc).
  12. If you are a leader or respected figure, respond to local or world events with a comforting, wise voice of authority.