Thursday, November 24, 2011

Take Shelter - Movie Review

Take Shelter
Rated R for some language
Moral Rating: 

While I enjoy a good blockbuster film as much as any average viewer, independent films are what really interest me in the entertainment world. Generally deeper and more poignant films, independent films are required by lack of budget to rely on acting and story-telling for success. In "Take Shelter", a surprise hit from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Michael Shannon delivers a stunning performance as a mentally tortured construction worker named Curtis. Shannon has recently appeared on the celebrity radar with his terrific supporting role in "Revolutionary Road" and his upcoming appearance as General Zod in "Man of Steel" - the Zach Snyder directed Superman reboot.

In "Take Shelter", Curtis and his wife Sam live a simple life in an unspecified rural American town raising their deaf daughter Hannah and trying to make the most out their circumstances and surroundings. Things begin to change when Curtis starts having intense dreams of an oncoming apocalyptic storm. As the dreams become more frequent and more realistic, Curtis' behavior towards his family and coworkers rapidly changes. As Curtis tries to sort through these freakish visions he begins to build a storm shelter in his back yard in preparation. The catch is, he isn't sure that it is actually coming or not. Tensions mount as Sam, portrayed by 2011's hottest new actress Jessica Chastain (also seen in The Tree of Life and The Help), begins to doubt her husband's motives. The audience discovers that Curtis's family has a history of mental illness, so we are always uncertain of the validity of these dreams. I cannot reveal too much more without giving away the plot, but "Take Shelter" slowly builds until an incredibly emotional and intense climax.

Without a doubt, Michael Shannon is the star of this show. Under the direction of Jeff Nichols ("Shotgun Stories") Shannon builds a sense of paranoia in a very real way. Upon viewing "Take Shelter" I could see why he is quickly becoming a hot commodity in Hollywood. Shannon often says more in scenes without dialogue than those containing it. As a character who is trying desperately to protect his family, we see the turmoil in Curtis' eyes as he battles his own mind. The struggle is rooted in the question 'Do I protect my family from an apocalyptic storm that I believe is coming, or from myself?' I found myself switching sides quite often throughout the film, thanks to Shannon's incredible performance. The dreams, horrific in their loud sound editing, shocking violence and darkness, are effective at shaking up the audience in addition to Curtis. And indeed, we can see that something is amiss by the intensity of these visions!

Another shout out belongs to the score composer David Wingo. Cleverly utilizing minimalist strings and percussion, he often creates the effect of wind chimes in his score. Never loud or prominent, the score is just active enough to get under your skin. Subtle enough that you don't notice its presence, perhaps to give us that constant sense of dread that Curtis experiences in the film. While it reminded me at times of James Newton Howard's score to "Signs", Wingo is a fresh face in the movie music world and a good match for the thematic material of "Take Shelter".

In conclusion, you'll notice that I did not reveal many plot points. And this is something important to note! If you are looking for a thought-provoking drama/thriller, then "Take Shelter" is for you - but it is best to enter the theater knowing nothing more than what I've told you. Much of the tension and effectiveness of this film is in the audience's own doubts and perceptions. While not for children (there are a handful of f-words towards the middle of the film) I DO recommend "Take Shelter" for older audiences. Refreshing in a market awash with cinematic cliches, Michael Shannon's award-worthy performance in "Take Shelter" is not to be missed!

Signing out,
The REAL Bowman

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets - Movie Review

The Muppets
Rated PG for mild rude humor
Moral Rating: 

Thank you Walt Disney Company for getting it right!

When I first heard that Disney was planning a so-called 'reboot' of their lagging Muppets property, I was a bit skeptical. After all, the man who had pitched the idea to the studio and was attached to star was not exactly family friendly. Jason Segel, as likeable an actor as he is, comes from the Judd Apatow raunch-comedy troupe, has written and starred in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and is a current favorite character on tv's "How I Met Your Mother" - which is also not exactly for the kids. I can happily tell you however that Segel's take on "The Muppets" is far from offensive. The film reintroduces The Muppets to a 21st century audience, yet never compromises the character and humor that the long-lived franchise is known for.

In "The Muppets" we are introduced from the very beginning to Gary (Jason Segel) and his brother Walter, a die-hard Muppets fan. We are never given the reason or opportunity to question how or why a puppet and human are brothers, but are asked to simply accept it in the whimsical spirit of The Muppets. Even though Walter is a new character, he is a welcome addition to the franchise and is according to Segel "the crazy, crazy, Muppet fan who grew up with them and they meant so much to him." ( Walter gets the chance of a lifetime when Gary takes him and his girlfriend of 10 years Mary (Amy Adams) to Los Angeles. While Gary intends for the trip to be a getaway and Mary hopes it will lead to a proposal, Walter is simply set on seeing the historic Muppet Studios. Once in LA Walter overhears a plot by the film's villain, Tex Richman (played perfectly by Chris Cooper), to raze the Muppet Studios once their contract expires, giving him access to an oil reserve beneath the property. The only way that this plan can be stopped is for the Muppets to reunite and put on a fundraiser show to raise the 10 millions dollars necessary to renew their contract and save The Muppet Theater.

Walter and Gary share a moment...

While certainly not an original story idea, "The Muppets" pulls off this plot better than any other film I've seen. The entire time I was watching, I was reminded of a much-lesser Disney movie from 2002 based on their "Country Bears" Disney World attraction. Where that film floundered in its own stupidity, Segel's script is witty, fun, and constantly paying homage to "The Muppet Show" and the early years of these characters. Old time fans will be touched by Kermit's song "Pictures in my Head" as he reminisces over the old days, or the presence of "The Rainbow Connection", a classic Muppets musical number. The new songs here start off a bit campy (the audience wasn't sure what to do when Jason Segel burst into song within the first 5 minutes) but as the film progresses, so does the quality of the songs. Bret McKenzie (of Flight of the Conchords fame) did an excellent job writing songs that fit the style of The Muppets. (Check out my personal favorite "Man or Muppet" on iTunes)

While the plot and songs are fine, what audiences truly care to see is the return of their much-loved characters! We discover that Kermit and Miss Piggy have been separated when we first see them, so much of the film is devoted to their (interspecies) relationship. Fozzie Bear and Gonzo fans never fear though, for we see ALL of our favorites in "The Muppets"! While I would have preferred to see more of Beaker, Rizzo the Rat and The Swedish Chef, each character has a role in the fundraiser show. In a wise move, the human characters never overshadow the Muppet characters, with both Gary and Mary moving into supporting roles once our heroes are re-established on screen. Granted, there is something amusing about seeing Jason Segel carry on an earnest conversation with puppets as if they are human. This childlike attitude seems to more than qualify Segel for the job as producer, writer and actor. As a long-time fan of "The Muppets" he treats them fairly, giving the characters the respect they deserve- never having to "reinvent" them. 

On a slightly random note, while you are viewing "The Muppets" keep your eyes open for the many, many celebrity cameos. Some are more prominent (such as Jack Black in a hilarious supporting role) and others are blink-and-you-miss-em fast (Mickey Rooney, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris, Whoopi Goldberg, John Krasinski, Selena Gomez among others). Back in the days of "The Muppet Show" the guest celebrities were always a delight, and this proves true today. 

In conclusion, "The Muppets" is a surprise hit at the cinema this Thanksgiving. Jason Segel has created a hilarious, heartwarming film is already receiving rave reviews from critics and movie-goers alike. I commented to my friend as I left the theater that I couldn't remember the last time I had been to a movie that I enjoyed so much where kids made up the majority of the audience. This is indeed one of the great things about "The Muppets" - it is good, clean fun for all ages. Truly funny, touching and definitely worthy of repeat viewings, this movie is a must see. 

Signing out,
The REAL Bowman

Side Note: "The Muppets" had one of the most brilliant ad campaigns that I have seen in a long time, spoofing other major film events of 2011 such as "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "Breaking Dawn" and "Green Lantern". Check out the preview below....

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Prodigals and Hipsters

"Hipsters are 'older brothers' pretending to be 'younger brothers'" - Ben Wolaver

What is it about the hipster movement that has so gripped pop-culture in the past few years? As someone who is constantly labeled a hipster, I tend to notice this more than your average American, yet most people can tell you to some degree what a hipster is. I personally love wearing plaid, have a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, enjoy listening to obscure indie music artists, am a conneuseur of coffee, and love literature. This seems to be enough to group me with the much more liberal "Hipster" hipsters that are generally more cynical, atheist existentialists. That, I DON'T relate to. Hipsters are also generally concerned with environmentalism, social justice and equal rights - even at risk of personal jeopardy or alienation from the masses.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a movement growing more and more in the American church to be a "Christian hipster" - to skirt tradition and go off on our own to enact change we believe in.
So what exactly gives hipsters that 'sex-appeal', that desire to be a self-designated outsider that so attracts us?

I believe it lies in the same reasoning behind why many people sponsor children through World Vision and Compassion International, the same reason behind why many people volunteer at the local homeless shelters and food banks. Don't get me wrong, I am by no means discouraging this form of generosity. I am simply pointing out the fact that it is now attractive to associate with the lowly. Humility out of pride. Showing up to volunteer in the ghetto with our Starbucks and desire to help, because it is, well, COOL.

Instead of true humility and service out of a genuine love for God and our neighbor - an attitude like Jesus - we find many people with the attitude of a Pharisee parading as an inner-city Jesus. A desire to do right simply out of arrogance and self-importance. THIS is one thing that bothers me about the modern-day "Christian Hipster" movement.

Many times Jesus would use parables to expose the Pharisee's hypocrisy in public, and in Luke 15 we see one of the most obvious criticisms of the religious leaders. As he associated with 'sinners' the Bible says that the religious leaders "grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”" (Luke 15:2 ESV). Immediately Jesus told 3 parables, finishing with The Prodigal Son. (If you want to read it click HERE.) Most pastors focus on the younger brother, how he squandered his father's wealth and in humility came back to his Father, who received him with open arms. And indeed this is a glorious reception for the son, who lost everything.

 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:17-24 ESV)

The younger brother realized his error, humbled himself, and came to his father as a servant. Adopting an attitude as a servant is certainly no strange concept to the Christian faith. Christ himself humbled himself by becoming human to live and die among us. And we are even encouraged to imitate Him in this humility. (read Philippians Chapter 2 for this!)

The older brother in this story is often overlooked, unfortunately. Even though he lived in his father's house and had everything he needed, he still couldn't rejoice when his brother was restored to the family. All he saw was his brother's sin, not the fact that he had returned. "...he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’" (Luke 15:28-30 ESV)

Up until this past century it was an extremely attractive thing to be a squeaky clean Christian. In other words, people looked up to you and considered you better than others if you went to church, knew scripture, abstained from drinking, sex, cursing etc. In the 21st century we find ourselves in a world where the exact opposite is true. Public views of the church are increasingly more and more negative, and the world criticizes and ridicules Christians who isolate themselves in the confines of the church using words like "legalistic" and "judgmental". This is where the "Christian hipster" music finds its roots. It is a fact that people like to be accepted and their actions approved. By criticizing the body of believers and setting out to associate with those who need help - being something of a prodigal Christian - we find that the world accepts us more and what we do. At what cost though? This facade of humility, acting like the prodigal son while we are nothing more than an older brother, is ripping at the foundation of our faith! What is that foundation? LOVE. Pure, unadultered, selfless, genuine LOVE - straight from the heart of our heavenly Father and intended to be shared with the world out of the overflow of our hearts.

Please don't misunderstand, I am glad that people recognize the flaws in legalism and judgment in the church. I am glad that young people are desiring to pour into the lowly, the poor and 'sinners' as Pharisees would call it. At least needs are being met!

The challenge is that we must remember who we were, and who we are. We are all unworthy of the Father's mercy. We are ALL called to LOVE those around us, and we are most importantly called to die to self. As it says in Galatians 2:20 "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

So who are you?
Do you have the heart of a younger brother, humbly returning to your Father?
Or do you have the heart of the older brother, unable to rejoice in other's joy because your eyes are turned inward?
Are you trying to look like a Prodigal? Or have you found yourself at the place of actually being a Prodigal?
Do we love because He first loved us?

Signing out,
The Buckland Fiddler