Little Hope Was Arson – A Review

Note: A review copy of this film was provided to me in exchange for a review. I thank especially the film’s executive producer, Bryan Storkel, for working to make sure I received this documentary, since I asked for it such a long time ago. In addition, you can check out the film’s website here.

There is no easy way to sum up the issues that naturally arise in a film about a pair of arsonists who target churches, starting with the church they grew up in.

We’ll start with the merits of the documentary. The easiest way to sum up the film’s credentials is to say this: you wouldn’t be wasting your time, by any means, if you decided to give this a watch. The narrative is well crafted without feeling contrived–no easy task in a documentary, confined on the sides by reality and compelling rhetorical tricks. The story is not so well known that you’ll feel like you know the ending (unless you’re from east Texas, I imagine), but also not so localized that it feels as though it is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Mild spoilers to follow. Continue reading Little Hope Was Arson – A Review

God’s Word: Hollywood Style

Last week the Wall Street Journal featured  an article, Hollywood’s New Bible Stories, about big name filmmakers’ increasing interest in Scripture as source material for a new wave of genre films.  Here is the central point:

There are compelling economic reasons for Hollywood to embrace the Good Book. The studios are increasingly reliant on source material with a built-in audience, something the Bible—the best-selling book in history—certainly has. And like the comic-book superheroes that movie companies have relied on for the past decade, biblical stories are easily recognizable to both domestic and the all-important foreign audiences. What’s more, they’re free: Studios don’t need to pay expensive licensing fees to adapt stories and characters already in the public domain.  With floods, plagues, burning bushes and parting seas, Bible movies make great vehicles for big-budget special effects, a key selling point for a wide swath of audience members. Continue reading God’s Word: Hollywood Style

J.J. Abrams on Story, Technology, and “Mystery Boxes” – Lunch w/ TED

Our “Lunch with TED” feature is back—and here to stay. (For the uninitiated, see Dustin’s original TED post here.) To commemorate this momentous occasion (and, frankly, the return of Lost, now in its sixth season) I chose to highlight a TED Talk by one of my favorite filmmakers—J.J. Abrams, a producer of hit films and TV shows including Lost, Alias, Fringe, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible III, and Star Trek.

In this TED Talk filmed in 2007, Abrams explores the relationships between mystery, story, creativity, and technology. In stories, he explains, the withholding of information is often more interesting than the revealing of it. Mystery and possibility tantalize us and keeps us coming back for more.

This, in part, explains my household’s addiction to his television shows. After all, half the fun for fans of shows like Lost or Fringe is spending spare moments between episodes puzzling over what happened in the previous show and speculating about what’s coming next. Shows like these have the singular ability to not only provide entertainment, but wonder—a rare thing in a rapidly disenchanting cultural landscape.

Our ever-evolving technology is a great boon in as much is it helps to tell stories that create wonder. Though we often over-consume and abuse the gifts of technology (Is there ever a moment when our devices cease their whirring?), its rapid evolution is a gift for storytellers in a variety of mediums. It has leveled the playing field so that essentially anyone with creativity and gumption can easily produce quality work.

There is no excuse for you, then, young artist. In the words of J.J. Abrams, “Go make your movie!” ‘

Imagine a New Body, for Everyone

At the tail end of a summer riddled with such high energy sci-fi films as Terminator 4 and Transformers 2 comes Surrogates, a Disney film with it’s own blend of sci-fi adventure sure to please any rabid fan. Surrogates shows us a futuristic world in which humans can experience life through robotic counterparts called “surrogates.” In the safety and comfort of their own homes, they simply sit back in a “stim chair” where they can control their surrogates as if they were their second skin. Bruce Willis plays Greer, an FBI agent who investigates the death of two people who died mysteriously when their surrogates were destroyed; a tragedy that was thought to be impossible. Greer’s investigation leads him to the “dreads,” those who have chosen to live without a surrogate, and their leader. When Greers’ own surrogate is destroyed, he is forced to continue the investigation in his own body.

From there the film dives into its third act, delivering some initially surprising twists that are obvious in retrospect. The film had to break some of its own rules in order to deliver them. In an early sequence, we’re told that no one can use a surrogate not already registered to them. However, in the third act characters change surrogates with as much spontaneity as the various identity switches in Mission Impossible: 2. When a filmmaker creates a new world with a whole new set of rules, he should respect his rules at least as much as he expects his audience to respect them.

Despite having a sizable visual effects budget, Surrogates was lacking aesthetically. Most of the surrogates were played by flesh and blood actors, but something about the stiffness of their performance or perhaps the ultra stylized sheen added to their skin gave the film an odd feeling. I breathed a sigh of relief every time I got to see a “real” human. I never thought a tired, bearded Bruce Willis would give me such a sense of relief.

One of the great advantages of science fiction is its ability to ask serious questions of human nature in creative and imaginative ways. Surrogates offers this to its viewers in some interesting, albeit understated ways. For instance, when a beautiful female surrogate killed near the beginning of the film is revealed to be operated by a balding middle-aged man, Greer and the other FBI agents are unfazed. This simple fact says much about our current society. The filmmakers seem to think this won’t shock their audience, and they are right. In a world where such things as sexual identity are a matter of choice, why would we be shocked? For the Christian, this reveals the need for relief from this fallen body. Yet it also shows quite clearly the inability of modern technology to deliver us from this problem. Technology, in its efforts to free us from the restraints of the world, only imprisons us further.

Surrogates doesn’t have quite the special effects or the exciting action sequences of a typical summer blockbuster, nor does it have the intellectual depth necessary to please serious science fiction fans. It’s most fascinating moments are delivered in the opening minutes during a documentary style presentation of the world that gave rise to Surrogates. Some of the footage they used was in fact real footage, particularly a video of a Japanese robotics engineer who has created a robot in his own likeness. Unfortunately, the film’s thematic subtlety ends there.

by brian walton