May 25 2015

5 Things that make a great war movie


Memorial Day is a great day for a good war flick. What makes a good war movie?

saving private ryan1.  A sacrificial hero. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. A good war flick communicates the loyalty and loss that going to war requires. A good war flick takes the hero on a journey that involves loss of innocence, growth of character, acquisitions of skills, and development of trusting relationships with other soldiers.  Capt. John Miller, a 30-year old married English teacher from Pennsylvania leads his company through Omaha Beach and into France in search on one man he’s been ordered to find. Miller is the picture of intelligent integrity and responsibility as he leads men he’s grown to care about into harm’s way on a mission he’s not completely behind.

Real soldiers say the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate picture of the chaos and horror of a real battle. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan has all the elements of a great war flick, a great sacrificial hero, a worthy cause on both an epic and personal scale, a great ensemble cast, and carefully crafted and researched battle scenes.

black hawk down2. Research. It may sound nerdy but a well-researched war movie brings history alive. Authentic replicas of costumes and weapons, settings that mimic the real thing, re-enactments of specific details, dialog that voices that particular time period go a long way toward giving the audience a glimpse into what it was like to be there. There are times when keeping the story on track or developing a strong character arc requires altering or leaving out historical details, but those decisions should be deliberate choices that serve the story rather than the result of sloppy research.

Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 which occurred during the American intervention in Somalia. In polls of soldiers who actually fought and military historians, Black Hawk Down is frequently chosen as a film that is historically accurate. According to Dan Ryan, a soldier who served there “the uniforms were right, the way the soldiers talked and acted was right, the weapons were right.” A realistic portrayal of war often relies on realistic depictions of the responses and interactions of the soldiers involved.

band-of-brothers3. A group of soldiers. The bonding and loss that takes place between fellow warriors creates unique relationships. The obvious representative film for this is Band of of Brothers, a collaboration production between Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This HBO series premiered in 2001 and follows two lieutenants from training camp in Georgia to the end of the war in the European theater.

The series not only depicts the war effort but some of the simple practical aggravations that war brings involving everything from supplies and communication to strained relationships and military .

A highlight of the 10-part series are brief interviews with actual veterans of Easy Company.  It’s worth a Memorial Day marathon.

war film glory4. Inspiring Heroism. The protagonist soldier who understands why he at war and heroically supports that noble cause at great personal sacrifice can really inspire.

Brotherhood, courage, loyalty, and  overcoming prejudice are big themes that inspire in Glory, a 1989 Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick. Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Shaw, an idealistic white Union commander of a newly-formed black regiment who must learn to lead. Denzel Washington’s Private Trip has a powerful character arc as he overcomes his own anger and prejudice. Ideas like heroism and nobility can come off as corny, but Glory avoids corniness this by simply telling the stories of strong characters who grow as human beings through the experience of fighting together.

When the audience can get behind the reasons for the war being fought on screen it’s much easier to focus on the heroic and noble aspects of war. Glory doesn’t glorify war but it does glorify the heroic and noble character that serving in war sometimes inspires in imperfect people.

apocalypse now5. Battle scenes. Most war movies involve at least one epic battle. Soldiers protect one another. They fight. They lose friends on the battlefield. They kill. The sometimes they get to use cool equipment. Sometimes they have to get innovative with the equipment they have. Stuff blows up.

The helicopter battle scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most epic in film. Target after target is destroyed. Machines, trees, and soldiers flash in confused cacophony to a score of Wagner’s Ride the Valkyries. The audience can practically smell the Napalm and it doesn’t smell glorious.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about Vietnam isn’t an “inspiring” war film about a noble cause. The psychological toll of this controversial war unfolds in the development and degradation of the main characters, Willard, Kurtz, and Kilgore, played by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall.

In a film in which there is conflict over whether that war should have been fought at all, the tone is often dark, cynical, or fatalistic. Films about wars like Vietnam often focus on the horrific aspects of war. Sometimes the worthy cause a war film communicates is avoiding war altogether.





Jun 29 2014

X Men: Days of Future Past



X-Men: Days of Future Past  has some continuity problems, but I enjoyed it. Good fight scenes. Good character development. Great casting.  The X-Men saga deals with themes like good and evil, control and power, and intentions and consequences. Days of Future Past provides a 20/20 hindsight on how these themes have played out in earlier X-Men movies. There was a lot going on in the plot that may be lost on those who haven’t seen at least some of the previous X-Men movies.

Time travel movies like this usually hinge on the idea that certain events drive change in history. A perfect storm of creativity, innovation, discovery, and technology bring about leaps in learning, communication, and industry such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age. Perfect storms of ambition, animosity, and greed, along with natural disasters, have historically pushed nations, and at times the entire world, into war or economic depression. Days of Future Past brings us to that culminating moment in X-world when the government, reacting to the perceived threat they present, build big robots and send them out to kill all the mutants. Continue reading

Nov 29 2013

Of Rattlesnakes and Mockingjays: Sacrifice and Symbol in Catching Fire


It started with Benjamin Franklin more than 20 years before the revolution. The rattlesnake was chopped into eight pieces. It illustrated Franklin’s editorial about the “disunited state” of the colonies and was originally used to encourage the 13 colonies to unite and fight with Britain in the French and Indian war. Revolution was not on Franklin’s radar at that time, but after years of paying a less costly tribute than the 13 Districts of Panem, seeds of revolution took root and Franklin’s “join or die” snake began appearing all over Colonial America The snake metaphor was later recycled into the familiar coiled rattler on the yellow background known as the Gadsden Flag. The snake and motto appears on Navy SEALS patches. Variations of the coiled snake and motto have been used by various political groups as a symbol of protest.join-or-die

Gadsden-flag-original-Marine-flagMockingjay_on_fire                                                                                                       In the first Hunger Games, the thirteen Districts were concerned about themselves. Each one sent their Tributes and kept their heads down. Some trained their Tributes in hopes of assuring survival and gaining status but mostly they hoped the Capitol would accept the annual sacrifice and ignore them. But something happened in the year’s time between the co-victory of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Melark in the 74th Hunger Games and the decision by the Capitol to bring them back for the 75th. What is the tipping point for revolution?

For the 13 Colonies it was Lexington and Concord. Fifteen years of griping about taxes and oppression came to a head when the British shed Colonist blood. The 13 Districts put up with the shedding of blood for seventy-five years, in a controlled way. Their revolution had failed and they were living with the Capitol’s bizarre vengeance. But they too have a tipping point.

Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins says that the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur was her inspiration and that she views Katniss modern Theseus. According to the myth King Minos of Crete demanded fourteen young Athenians, 7 male, 7 female are paid in tribute. Athens paid to avoid war. Sending the young people into the labyrinth where he kept the Minotaur, Minos enjoyed blood sport with political motivation. That does sound a lot like President Snow. In the Greek myth, the demi-god Theseus volunteers to be one of the tributes and eventually defeats the Minotaur and saves the young Athenians.

Katniss is no demi-god, but, like Theseus, but she begins as a volunteer, a willing sacrifice in The Hunger Games. Salvation stories require willing sacrifices. In Catching Fire, Peeta is the volunteer and the other tributes are sacrifices. They sacrifice themselves to save Katniss, not because she’s Katniss but because she’s the Mockingjay.

Any revolution worth its salt is going to offer an inspiring symbol, like Guy Fawkes mask or Rattlesnake or the Mockingjay. Katniss is comfortable with the role of volunteer and sacrifice, she’s comfortable when she’s the one using her platform to convey a message, like putting flowers around Rue’s grave. But Katniss is not as comfortable with her role as symbol of the valiant Tribute when the Capitol tries to use her in this way. Now she’s the Mockingjay and the District dissidents are willing to sacrifice others to save her. They have plans for her as symbol of the revolution, plans that require sacrifice.

In thinking about the spiritual implications, Jesus as volunteer and sacrifice, as dissident and revolution leader, overturning the system wasn’t His mission. Love was His mission. Jesus wasn’t setting Himself up as a symbol but as a sacrifice. He lived in a brutal and oppressive age but wasn’t teaching His disciples how to stage an uprising, yet the results of His teaching caused revolutionary change. As Katniss is lifted in the helicopter, arms stretched out in the traditional “Christ figure” movie pose, Snow’s granddaughter says, “Someday I want to love like that!” Now there’s a goal worth starting a revolution over.

Nov 7 2013

Ender’s game and the uncertainty of perception


Ender’s Game explores reality and assumptions. Ender’s Game explores the consequences that come in attempting to separate the emotional and ethical self from the logical and strategic self. Ender’s choices seem reasonable if his assumptions about the games are true. Characters solve perceived problems using reason and strategy, often putting emotions on hold. The movie made me consider whether emotions are as legitimate a consideration in perception as logic and how perceptions alter reality.

For some reason I want to put Ender’s game in the context of two ideas from physics: the observer effect and the uncertainty principle. The observer effect states that observing a phenomenon alters it. Ender’s point of view, his involvement, the compassion and the creative application of strategy Ender brings to Col. Graff’s game sends its players on a different trajectory and alters the reality they perceive. What is real in a theoretical state is altered every time Ender applies compassion and emotion. In the same way Graff’s paranoia and perceptions concerning the Formics alters the security of earth from their attack.

When Ender views the game through Graff’s eyes something different happens than when he responds based on Valentine’s perceptions or Petra’s. Most of us do not respond to real life situations in a completely dispassionate and logical manner. We factor in our ethics as we lay out our strategies. Our emotions affect the execution of our logically conceived plans.

The uncertainty principle states that increasing the precision in which we measure one quantity (either the position or momentum of a particle) forces the loss of precision in measuring the other. Col. Graff’s games are designed to measure Ender’s strategic capabilities while Maj. Anderson’s explore his emotional state. Major Anderson, a child psychologist charged with evaluating the recruits, has Ender play a game that adapts to his emotional state. Ender alters the game and populates itself with people who matter to him. Reality breaks into the game in a way that Anderson did not plan or expect.

Graff’s game requires Ender to make strategic decisions requiring him to sacrifice people he’s never met. In order to succeed in Graff’s game Ender must separate his emotions from the game and make strategic choices in order to win.  It seems impossible for Ender to meld into a whole self in the games he is playing. The more he is aware of the tension within himself between compassion or strategy, the more difficult it is to achieve a balance.

Perceptions and assumptions also create a reality that may or may not be true. Fear drives the decisions of the International Military in Ender’s Game. Col. Graff fears that the Formics who devastated earth seventy years before will come back and finish it off. Though there has been no activity from the Formics, the defense program continues. The program identifies and recruits children whose gaming abilities indicate talent in military strategy. Those children will be pitted against the Formics in a wargame for the plant.

Ender, like his brother and sister before him is identified. While his brother washed out for being too violent and his sister, for being too compassionate, Ender seems to be the one who is just right. Graff sees this program as earth’s best hope for survival and believes that Ender is the one who will ultimately save the planet from the annihilation he fears. Sacrificing childhood to preserve the planet seems like a logical, perhaps even defensible, strategy if Graff’s assumptions about he future are true.

Who’s perceptions are defining reality and what motives are driving their perceptions? Jesus said that there is no fear in love and that perfect love casts out fear. Fear drives Graff’s perceptions. It alters his version of reality. Even without fear, strategy and perception can only take Ender so far. It is compassion that alters everything and reveals what is real.

May 6 2013

Ironman Three


May 6

It doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it might have taken itself a wee bit more seriously. Compared to the previous movies in the series, Ironman Three felt just a little campy.

It had all the expected archetypes and basic plot line that made it feel to me like it was wearing a sign that said “superhero movie.” Not to say it wasn’t fun. The writing in Ironman Three was funny. Stuff blew up. There were cool gadgets. I do love the Marvel characters and I have to say  Ironman Three disappointed a little there.

Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin was a trip. I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t seen it.  His trickster villain was my favorite part of the movie. Continue reading

Feb 16 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the importance of backstory



Zero Dark Thirty is gripping and slow at the same time. The story is about these necessarily anonymous men and women who devoted years of their lives to locate Bin Ladin. The pace of the movie certainly mirrors the painstaking process.


The story itself felt real. Imperfect, often irritating individuals work together toward a common end. They disagree. Bosses pull rank. They work around protocol. They lie and deceive, spy and torture as part of their jobs. I kept wondering whether the job influences the person or the person influences the job. Who decides to make a lifestyle out of this?

Continue reading