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Why We Need More Films Like Ephraim’s Rescue

As I’m perpetually behind the times, I just saw this 2013 film last night, and I feel impelled to share my thoughts. We live in an age of hyper-materialism. I.e. our concept of the life, the universe, and everything begins with stuff, revolves around stuff, and ends with stuff. The god of this universe is Almighty Naturalism, and at the core of his doctrine is the belief that as the the first proteins of the first cell formed by chance, everything that’s followed, from the formation of humans, to the invention of the spaceship have also been by chance. There is no guiding force, no unseen curtains, no ultimate meaning or purpose beyond our perceptions. Decay, death, and entropy are the final states of all living things. Spirituality, therefore, as it is neither material nor natural, is nonsense.

Ironically, I think this mentality often speaks the loudest in fiction. While there’s no shortage of books and movies about fantastic worlds, these usually come with clear contracts of being fiction and nothing more. When dramatizing real events or events that could be real, I think writers feel a burden to censor their work in order to make it conform to the doctrine of naturalism. That is, if I put my characters in a bind, as tempting as it may be to solve their problems by lowering a god on a trapeze, this would violate of my contract with the audience. I would be feeding them melodrama when they signed up for realism (or so-called realism anyway). If a prophecy is fulfilled or a miracle occurs, there must at least be hints of natural explanations.

But what’s a writer to do when his source material suggests supernatural activity? Say, as was the case with Ephraim’s Rescue, we’re doing a treatment of Mormon pioneers in 1856. We have many journals and publications to reference. There’s an overwhelming harmony of facts. But we know our audience simply won’t believe that someone was raised from the dead.

We could try to play it safe and imply that the person wasn’t really dead in the first place, because, of course, in virtue of our superior education and word view, we know better than some nineteenth century crackpots who had no problems stretching the truth in order to further their religious objectives. But what if a large volume of journals report hundreds of supernatural healings? Was everyone a crackpot? In order to stay naturalistic, we would literally have to start censoring the material, arbitrarily deciding what was true and what was not. I say arbitrarily, because it wouldn’t be through any rules of historicity, as the exact historical sources and methods are used to establish facts. The sole-determining factor would be our twenty-first centuries views of what’s possible and what’s not.

Only, what do you do when incredible events are … credible? As the story goes, Ephraim Hanks, standing in the middle of snowy wasteland, prayed for a buffalo so that he can feed the starving pioneers, and when he opened his eyes, he saw a lone buffalo standing in the snow. This is definitely unnatural, as buffalo migrate in herds before winter hits. But we can’t just dismiss it, as there were too many eye-witnesses of the fact that Hanks showed up to camp with a wagon full of buffalo meat.

I see three possibilities: (1) this really was a miracle, (2) the full truth has been obscured, or (3) it was a grand coincidence. Of course, we’re not allowed to accept possibility one, so let’s consider number two. Maybe Ephraim really did feed the people meat, but maybe he was lying about the implausible means through which he procured it. Maybe the meat was really beef that he picked up from a farmer in Salt Lake City.

But if this were the case, there are other factors to investigate, such as the testimonies of those who accompanied Hanks. And it would follow that Hanks was either delusional or deceitful. If delusional, influenced by wishful thinking, we would be left to wonder how such a confused person could successfully navigate the arduous Mormon trail some fifty times, inspiring the confidence of his leaders, and rescuing so many people. If we’re to believe he was deceitful, we would have to explain a motive and compare this incident to his other actions to check for consistency.

Moving on to possibility number three, if the so-called miracle was really a coincidence, how many coincidences do we allow before the sheer number of coincidences seems too much to be … coincidental? With the story of Ephraim Hanks and the many stories that intersected with his, we would have to conclude that these larger-than-life events represent extreme statistical anomalies.

After omitting any nonsense about raising the dead and such, some of the events in this film could be explained by the afore-mentioned theories (whether or not such explanations are correct). Most, however, don’t bear the marks of delusion, charlatans, or some cooperative hoax, but the direct opposite: earnest people with nothing to gain acting in faith and sacrifice to positively affect other people. Any comprehensive explanation of the events save trusting the testimonies of those who experienced them becomes so convoluted and divorced from verification that it’s simply improbable. In other words, when all things are considered, it becomes illogical to deny the existence of miracles.

Surrounded by comfort, distanced by centuries, and with only shreds of information to draw from, are we really going to say to those who gave their all as they died in the snow, “I know you think you experienced miracles, but we know better”? Perhaps, in turn, they would say to us, “If you don’t believe in miracles, you should spend more time in the snow.”

In summary, how do writers treat anomalies like these? In short, they usually don’t. There’s a plethora of historical treatments of Cleopatra and Abraham Lincoln, and there’s no end of far-fetched fantasies, but as for something that looks like the former but smells like the latter, no matter how great the story, well there’s no place for it other than on the special interest shelf for religious wackos.

For those who are more interested in truth than entertainment (not that the two are mutually exclusive), who are open to considering all logical possibilities, even those that aren’t prescribed by the state religion, I’m glad there’s films like Ephraim’s Rescue. Wonderful script, wonderful message, great acting, great cinematography, overall an inspiration. T.C. Christensen’s films are the best, the fresh air thoughtful audiences have been yearning for. I also highly recommend Christensen’s companion film, 17 Miracles. His film the Cokeville Miracle was incredible. Why these films never rise above a 5 or a 6 on IMDB, to me, can only described by prejudice.

Though I confess that I, myself, wasn’t excited to see Ephraim’s Rescue, as, you know, I automatically assumed it belonged on the special interest shelf for religious wackos. I was short-sided. In my arrogant opinion, films like this remind us of why it’s so glorious to be a Christian: because miracles really do happen. Jesus really did come back, and that changes everything. It’s not that such assertions can’t be disproved; that alone wouldn’t constitute proof, nor be compelling. It’s that, for those who choose the path of faith, miracles not only become real, they become clear evidences of the glorious, transcendent realities we’re a part of. They help us see that there’s so much more to this universe than traffic jams, Facebook feeds, pain, and fiction. They remind us that when we look to the stars and do good, wonderful things are possible.

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The Force Awakens: Star Wars for the ADHD Generation

Star Wars: the Force AwakensFew things excite me like John William’s Star Wars theme. Hearing those blasting trumpets and seeing that amazing yellow logo glimmering with all the scifi wonder of 1977 against the panoramic backdrop of a vast starscape, this is the stuff of magic. This familiar moment at the opening of The Force Awakens had me literally bouncing on my seat, as my embarrassed wife will attest. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this movie, especially as so many have raved over it.

My first observation was that I was glad to read a familiar, thoroughly cheesy intro with phrases like “the Sinister First Order” and “searching the galaxy for Luke Skywalker …” I could tell right off that this movie was going to be another great Space Western with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, almost like an extended Sunday school lesson but far more entertaining. Though it also begged the question, “Do I really want another melodrama?” I mean, we’ve already been through six movies cataloguing the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire and the eventual triumph of the righteous underdogs. Wouldn’t it be a little counterproductive to throw away all that progress and start over? Surely that’s not what the film is going to be, is it? Of course not. The Imperial days are over. It’s time for a new period, a new conflict, new themes, and new wonders. I mean, there’s a whole galaxy to explore.

Of course, my fears turned out to be spot on. I won’t dare call the movie a remake, as apparently there’s been a touchy debate on the subject, but it was at least a “soft reboot,” strongly reminiscent of A New Hope. I’m almost certain the making of the film started with a conversation like this:

“So those prequels didn’t turn out too well, and we’ve got way too much money on the line to risk another box office bomb. So let’s just follow the proven formula of Episode IV. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in a lot of Episode V, because that one also did well.”

This wasn’t necessarily a bad idea as The Force Awakens succeeded at fitting right into the Star Wars universe. The filmmakers clearly went to great pains to be true to those 1977 designs and motifs, even with retro screen visuals and flashy lights on the walls that serve no purpose. Awesome. They knew exactly who their target audience was: people like me who had grown up with a religious zeal for Star Wars, who had been hurt by the prequels, and wanted to return to the comfort of their beloved galaxy from long ago and far away with pseudo-religious overtones, inspiring the inner-heroes within.

And yet, for me, this movie was too familiar: another lost droid holding important information, another sandy planet with a trapped, young Jedi in the making, a new galactic empire (with virtually no explanation as to its roots or financial backing), a new Darth Vader, a new cantina full of monsters, a new Yoda-figure, a new Death Star, new Yavin’s to blow up, and so on.

I get that they wanted cohesion with the earlier episodes, but with so much budget and technology, why not get at least a little more creative and show some non-earth-like terrain? I mean, every single habitat in the Star Wars universe so far has a direct counterpart on earth. Why not show us a planet with a pink sky where it rains sulphur and the trees look like giant frog eggs, and there’s half the gravity of earth? What’s with Hollywood’s obsession with boring desert planets? Don’t get me wrong: Tatooine was beyond cool in 1977, when Star Wars pioneered the possibilities of scifi cinema. But in 2016, have we now reached the outer limits with nothing left to do but pander to nostalgia? Why not take that pioneering spirit further?

And now I’m going to completely contradict myself in adding that it was too bad that the filmmakers didn’t learn from all of the mistakes from the prequels, namely the use of CGI characters. I know I speak for many when I say we just don’t want them. We just don’t love them. They’re just … no good. The use of puppets is one bit of Star Wars nostolgia that should never be compromised.

I was able to overlook all of these disappointments  but one that hit too hard: the reintroduction of Han Solo. We discover that, as a seventy-something year-old-man, he’s long-since left Leia and backslid to his smuggling days. I can also imagine the conversation that led up to this choice: “What do we do with him? He can’t just be happily married. Where’s the conflict in that? And he certainly can’t have attained some level of maturity and sagacity in his old age. That would just depress our audience. The Han Solo they knew and loved was a rough, sarcastic smuggler, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Which reminds me of a rumor I’d heard about Cookie Monster. Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, but as the story goes, there was a time when Cookie Monster overcame his urge for cookies and grew a liking for fruits and vegetables, encouraging children to eat more healthy. Audiences were enraged, insisting that Cooke Monster was betraying his true nature, and, accordingly, the familiar Cookie Addict soon returned. In large, our world rejects the concept of progression and insists on unaltered, platonic ideals.

Han and Leia’s relationship and characters had developed over three wonderful movies, in which they’d both passed through the refiner’s fire. Contrast their flippant attitudes in Episode IV to their softer, more altruistic, and genuinely loving attitudes by the end of Episode VI. It’s sad to just throw that all away for the sake of a new conflict, and it came at a cost.

Sure Han and Leia had some token lines exhibiting their wisdom of age, but these, for me, fell flat, as they had so little to show from the last thirty years. For example, consider Han’s lines about the reality of the force and the Jedi. His testimony might have meant something if I could see that the Force had influenced his life for good, making him who he was. But it’s as if all he really said was, “I used to think Luke had a stunt double, that it was all a bunch of simple tricks and nonsense. But I was wrong. He totally does he own stunts. True story.”

Furthermore, what good is a testimony of the Force in a galaxy where the effects of the Force can be so obviously observed? Which brings me to my next observation: the supplanting of the principle of faith. In Episode IV, when Luke is introduced to the Force by Ben Kenobi, the Force is presented as a belief system. It requires faith in an unseen power. Luke has to develop this faith through acts of courage as he chooses to let go of his imperfect judgment and trust in a higher power. The process requires a loving mentor, gruelling tests, and deep spirituality.

However, in The Force Awakens, the new Jedi in the making, Ray, develops her “gift” in the same way that young Anakin did in Episode 1: dumb luck. Without any real mentor, any real knowledge, no apparent belief in a higher power, and no leap of faith, she simply maneuvers her way through adventure after adventure with inexplicable ability, until, at last, she realizes (don’t ask me how) that she has Force powers. She then proceeds to develop this gift as one would develop a knack for martial arts. No need for the dispelling of doubt or the learning of a transcendent principle such as  “Luke, trust me” or “do or do not” or “judge me by my size, do you?” She just gets the force.

What does this say about our audiences? Is a belief in God now no more than an extension of our abilities? Do we now worship ourselves?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but there used to be something special about Star Wars, something different form your usual swords and sorcery. I don’t really see the filmmakers at fault as, once again, they did a great job in giving audiences what they want. What disturbs me is that this is, apparently, what audiences want. Philosophy, religion … those are so 1977. Just give us lots and lots … and lots … of action.

Action: what you do when you don’t have a story. Because without action, characters would start talking, and when characters start talking, they start exploring ideas, and when characters start exploring ideas, they start making decisions based on their own volition and not as compelled by extreme circumstances,  and when this happens, you’ve got a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven story, and this would undermine the very foundations of melodrama, which the audience paid good money to see. Thus the characters were seldom permitted to complete two sentences in a row before being interrupted by an explosion.

My wife argues that this is exactly how the original movies were. I believe she’s half-right. Yes, my bias will always be with the Star Wars of my youth. And yet, before the MTV generation, stories, in general, were slower, more thoughtful, more character-driven. Before the dark times … before CGI.

I don’t mind some thematic action here and there, especially when the world has been well built, the stakes have been set, the characters have been established, the journey has been made, and the goal is within reach. But when the story is action — scene after scene of over-the-top fantasy violence against impossible odds with unbelievable, unqualified success — this is not to be confused with a story. It’s gratuitous. It’s tedious. It’s boring. I don’t want to watch superheroes, who, in virtue of their birth, can do what I’ll never be able to. I want to learn how can become a Jedi. Otherwise, what’s the point? The Star Wars I still love had so much more to offer than mere entertainment value.

There was so much action that there was little room for character. Ray, for example, didn’t actually have character. She was a concept of uncompromising good. In that she was likable, but she wasn’t a character. Aside from a vague memory from childhood, she had little to no background, no friends, no culture, little to no personality, and once again, no time to think, talk, or make a decision that wasn’t absolutely forced. Notwithstanding, she was an amazing acrobat, martial artist, mechanical genius, and … somehow … pilot?

Hooray for girl power.

Fin was another interesting concept — a conscience-pricked, deserting storm trooper — but again, with almost no background and no time to make a less than extreme decision, he was two-dimensional at best.

As plot was so important to this movie, it was too bad that the main plot — to find Luke Skywalker — really had no weight whatsoever. Characteristic of sequels, this device was a shameless fallback to previous setups, dogmatic instead of self-evident. I mean, what do we care if there’s no more Jedi? I might have cared in a previous movie, but in The Force Awakens, what even is a Jedi? Just another action hero? We’ve got plenty already.

And what’s with the silly “map” that leads to Luke’s hiding place? If he wanted to be alone, why did he make himself into a geocaching game for treasure hunters, putting part of the map on one droid, part on another? The concept of a map in space travel is silly to begin with. All you would need are coordinates. I hear that a lot of missing information can be found in the novelization, but if the film is an independent art form, I would think it should be able to stand as such.

While there were some intriguing scenes, my brain had had enough by the time we reached the completely unnecessary action sequences at Han Solo’s smuggling station. Or were we in someone else’s smuggling station? I lost track of who was smuggling whom. I really wanted to walk out of the theater and likely would have done so if I weren’t so curious about how this film was going to redeem itself and why so many people liked it. In large, I felt that the story didn’t really even start until Han Solo was killed by his Generation Y, schizophrenic son, Kylo Ren. Finally something new and interesting!

I thought the story would begin a moment earlier, when Han tries to persuade Kylo to step down from his pedestal of evil, and Kylo appears to soften. I thought, “Wow, this is unprecedented. A new Darth Vader has been painstakingly set up to reign with blood and horror, and now he’s just going to renounce it all? Talk about character! This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must be why everyone likes this movie.”

Then I thought better. “Wait, no, this is obviously a false climax. He’s going to harden again, the good guys and the bad guys will polarize, and there will yet be many long sequences of storyless action.”


Of course, the visuals were amazing, the sets breathtaking, the acting superb. I even loved the impossible physics.  I’m all for a fantastic universe so long as there’s a fantastic story to go with it. And the music … ah, the music. It was there, and yet it wasn’t there. John Williams’ masterpieces are a quintessential part of any Star Wars film, and I don’t think he failed to deliver this time. Yet I didn’t hear anything that really stood out as new or particularly moving. I think he did as bast as he could for this movie. The problem was that the movie (1) had no new ideas, and (2) was so fast-paced and scatter-brained that the only suitable music was long sequences of your average twentieth-century high-tension riffs, mixed in with some occasional classic Star Wars themes.

And … that’s pretty much it. Thanks to this film, I think I’m done with Star Wars for good. I have no desires to see any more sequels nor any other PG-13 melodrama so long as I live. Though I had hoped for something new and inspirational, as Star Wars used to be, as Soloman put it, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Apparently this is true in other galaxies as well.

My conclusion: at least for my generation, Star Wars has fulfilled its purpose, and it’s time for us to move on. It succeeded at inspiring us to think of the big and beyond, to develop and master ourselves as Jedi Knights amid an epic war of good and evil. But for an old man trapped in a young man’s body like yours truly, I’ve found nothing more to be gleaned from this galaxy that never was. I see little value in recreating and dragging on a story that was already finished … unless of course the artists doing so truly have something better to add, but I doubt this will ever happen with this franchise, as there’s way too much money to be made from gratuitous fantasy violence.

Again, I blame the audiences. It’s only too plain: we don’t want inspiration anymore. We don’t want to become Jedi anymore. We just want mind-numbing escapism.

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Thoughts on “The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black

In which Harry Potter takes on a homicidal ghost lady with a brilliant sense of dramatic tension

I feel like writing a review. Teresa brought this one home from the library, saying a coworker had recommended it. I’ve never been big on horror films, (1) because the genre has always seemed a little too … evil … for my tastes. (2) (this is the real reason) because Watcher in the Woods traumatized me as a child, and after I saw The Others as a teenager, I found myself literally afraid of the dark. So why purposely give one’s self PTSD?

However, I’ve since come to appreciate horror as an art form, and having also since studied film in college (a very demystifying process), I seriously doubted any film’s ability to actually scare me. I watched the film with this attitude, and I’m not sure if it was the attitude or the film itself, but I was right. Not scary. Funny.

One of the first realizations I had was that there are few things ghosts can actually do in movies. The instant a ghost comes out of obscurity and starts throwing knives at you is the instant the ghost has lost its status as a supernatural unknown and has reduced itself to just another physical danger. And the instant this happens, you no longer have a ghost story but a mind-numbing action film. Thus ghosts are required to stand at the end of hallways, partially obscured, making subtle noises, jumping out at you, then promptly disappearing, looming everywhere but not actually being anywhere. In other words, they’re all moonshine.

While this realization may ruin the fun of a good horror film, I found it enlightening, because (1) I guess I don’t like feeling vulnerable and, perhaps as a self-defense mechanism, I view horror films as a challenge, and (2) if the opportunity ever arises to claim an old, haunted mansion by spending the night in it, a la The Ghost and Mister Chicken, I intend to show up the paranormal by exposing their cheap tricks for what they are.

And speaking of ghostly tricks, this woman in black was the queen. In mortality, she must have been an accomplished magician with a masters in filmmaking. She knew how to compose each shot, placing herself just around the corner, standing where she knew the protagonist would glance, then vanishing as the suspense began to mount. To add to the ambiance, she dressed her set with all sorts of bizarre, custom-made toys with unbelievably scary faces, ominous music boxes, and wind-up dolls that no child would ever touch. Most impressive of all, she got her entire ensemble of murdered children to work with her in standing in opportune places with ghostly looks on their faces while not actually saying or doing anything. To think how she could have so masterfully orchestrated such horrific art without betraying it all by communicating something intelligible is beyond me. But then, I guess that’s how ghosts work. It’s their jobs to remain aloof, anecdotal, and strictly unquantifiable, lest someone were to disprove their existence.

And yet … come one. Is the afterlife really so dismal to explain one’s only pastime being sitting around in an empty house for decades on end, crafting spooky, yet subtle encounters with the living? How in the world are these haunting dead not bored out of their minds and moving on to something new? Among the living, I doubt even the most guilty mass murderer with “unfinished business” could bring himself to sit around for decades bemoaning himself. So what’s going on in the hereafter that makes so many so pathetic and tolerable of tedium?

What’s fun is when you realize the rhythm of a horror film like this. Camera tightens on protagonist. Protagonist looks around in uncertainty. Feelings of vulnerability increase. The strings are all over the place. Somebody’s playing a hair-raising waterphone. Three … two … one … AGH! Is it the ghost? Of course not, because the ghost can’t actually reveal herself until we approach the climax of the movie, which will happen at about 110 minutes, and we’re only at 35, so you can rest with 90% certainty that it’s a false alarm. And the cycle goes on. And on.

I’m not talking down this movie. It was well made with beautiful cinematography. I’ll bet the crew had a blast with nearly every shot. “Let’s see, what would be scary here? Oh! How about an eyeball!” It’s just that this movie has helped me realize how stilted, silly, ridiculous (and fun) cinematic horror can be. Now I would be lying if I said the movie never made me jump (a little bit) or afraid of the dark (slightly) afterward. One can’t expose himself to two hours of intentionally traumatizing material without feeling a little PTSD.

On the other hand, I’ve come to realize that there’s something valuable in horror. It can be good for the soul to experience fear in a safe environment so that we can learn from ourselves how to deal with it. And if I ever have to deal with a psychotic woman in black from the other side, I know just what I’ll do. I’ll sit down with her and talk cinema.


Not scary.

OK, maybe just a little.

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Thoughts on Disney’s Maleficent

Disney's MaleficentThis is another post I started months ago (at least in my mind) and am finally getting around to finishing.

I probably wouldn’t have seen this movie had not family members insisted that Teresa and I needed to see it, offering free babysitting services so we could do so. As anyone with kids knows, one does not turn down such opportunities lightly.

If you read my review on Disney’s Frozen, you’ll understand my reticence to see this film. My patience for stories about misunderstood witches who are really good when an ignorant society as branded them as evil, has grown ever thinner. It seems that such stories have become an emerging genre in themselves. I mean, first we learn that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t actually wicked. Then we learn that the Snow Queen isn’t actually wicked. And now we learn that Maleficent, the very queen of the night, isn’t wicked either? Are there no more wicked witches in this world?

The opening sequence was delightful. What’s not to like about a beautiful fairy girl in a beauty fairy world? I will tell you, though, that such high fantasy always gives me cognitive dissonance. That is, I like what I’m seeing, but my rational mind immediately exploits the impossibilities, which kills my suspension of disbelief. For example, I have no problem with fairy girls with ram horns. But when there’s only one fairy girl in the entire fairy world, I wonder, “Where are her parents? How does she brush her teeth? What does she use for toilet paper? Where did she learn English? Who does her immaculate makeup each morning? And why would the giants and dwarves submit themselves to her whims?”

I could look past all this, because the story had the tone of a fairy tale, and as far as I’m concerned, fairy tale logic, in its simplistic beauty, transcends actual logic. But the thing about fairy tales is that they’re just that: tales. Without the tools of cinema or theatre, fairy tales allow a storyteller to easily connect with an audience by compressing the complexities of life into digestible themes of good and evil, kings and peasants, love and hate. On the other hand, when you have the luxury of showing your stories, unless done very stylistically, the fairy tale convention can be at odds with the realness brought by the actors. Thus I thought the film was developing nicely until suddenly the narrator said something like, “Stefan told her it was true love … but it was not.”

I mean, I could see the characters with my own eyes. I could hear their voices. I could make my own judgements. It really bothered me when the narrator told me that what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing. From this point on, IMHO, the film shifted gear toward the didactic agenda I was dreading.

There’s nothing uncool about the theme of “judge not that ye be not judged.” In fact I’m quite fond of that theme, which, perhaps, is why I fell in love with Wicked when it first came out. The thought of discovering the untold back story of a misunderstood person is exciting. Paradigm shifts are fun. But after the film, Teresa made a keen observation. She said something like, “It’s ironic that the filmmakers press this theme about not judging the person you formerly thought was the villain. But in order to advance this theme, they think they have to create a new villain.”

She said it well. What was up with the villainous King Stefan? I mean, if the filmmakers were creating this story from scratch, it would be a different matter, but because this was a retelling of a classic fairy tale, one can’t just take a completely benign character and make him pure evil while taking a completely evil character and making her benign, without implying a certain point. At first you would think the point is that “no one’s purely evil, so don’t judge until you know the full story.” But that wasn’t the case with this film. As far as I could tell, the point was only that “Maleficent wasn’t pure evil, whereas King Stefan was.” So what are we supposed to learn?

In short, the filmmakers simply reinvented melodrama. But unlike Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, where you can root for the good guys and boo for the bad guys, this new-age melodrama insists on being just stilted enough to be nearly void of philosophical content while still ambiguous enough to confuse one’s emotions.

As if the unwarranted villainization of King Stefan wasn’t enough to preach the theme that “your traditional concept of ethics and values are backwards,” we discover that the “good” fairies that take Sleeping Beauty under their wings are ignorant, dopey, and pathetic. We discover that every “evil” action Maleficent takes is only half-hearted and traceable to justified feelings of betrayal, and that, when she comes to her sensibilities, she has every intention of undoing her mischief. In short, we learn that good is actually evil, and evil is actually good … or that no one’s actually good, while some people are definitely evil.

What bothered me were the list of contemptible things Maleficent did that the audience was expected to dismiss. For example, there was a scene where some of King Stefan’s knights discovered the location of Maleficent. With the raising of her eyebrows, she proceeds to fling these guys into the air, play with them in sadistic ways, conk their heads together, then hurl them huge distances that, in real life, would almost certainly be lethal. These guys were just doing their jobs. They probably had wives and kids. How many daddies won’t be coming home tonight, because Maleficent thought it would be funny to conk their heads together and throw them a few hundred yards?

When Maleficent herself enlists on the adventure to sneak into the castle, knock out more guards, and rescue the princess, for me at least, the film reached the point of absurdity. The prince, of course, has no useful function in the rescuing of the princess. That would be sexist. Next, Disney’s new anti-cliches about love at first sight and kisses of true love no longer working like they used to … are becoming cliche. Though in fairness, I did think the kissing scene was clever enough and almost beautiful … in a deranged kind of way.

Lest I’m coming across as cynical, I really did enjoy the movie for the most part. Overall, it was fun, and I guess that’s good enough. I say overall, because, as with just about every melodrama, I hated the action scenes in the third act. So stilted. So devoid of meaningful ideas. So unreal. So boring. Yes, action puts me to sleep. I’m weird like that.

At the end of it all, while I don’t really have a problem with switching things up for the sake of a good story, in the case of this film and its associated fairy tale, there are unavoidable implications in doing so. When the closing credits began to roll, I found myself feeling utterly confused, almost amazed. The song for the closing credits (a downright creepy remix of “Once Upon A Dream”) was a perfect closure to it all. Love, we learn, is no longer innocent. People can no longer just fall in love and get married. It’s all infinitely complicated and mysterious. If you walk out of this theater feeling wholesome and inspired, then we have failed to burn our message into your cranium. Life … is … bizarre!

Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty, in all of its clear-cut melodrama, brings tears to my eyes. A good knight stands up against an evil dragon. It’s simple. And yet it speaks to my soul. It makes me want to be a better person. This modern retelling, on the other hand, which seems so indicative of modern culture — I’ve said it before, but I don’t know how else to say it — confused me.

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My Review of Disney’s Frozen … Long After Anyone Would Care

Disney's FrozenSue me, I’m a late adopter of cinema … which has its benefits. If you can train yourself to not care about movies until after everyone else stops caring, you’ll never have to pay a premium price for tickets. In fact, you’ll never have to pay for tickets at all, because by then you’re bound to have a friend who owns the film on Bluray and is happy to share (I’ve tried to adopt this model of waiting till afterwards for discounted prices with Christmas, but my wife has yet to buy into it.) Plus, the 1st Law of Steve declares, “If everyone else is into something, give it no attention whatsoever.” Knowing it would only be a matter of time before my five-year-old daughter would twist my arm into watching this film, I followed this law to a tee.

Though there’s another reason I was hesitant to watch this film, and no, it had nothing to do with a cryptic gay agenda. It was because I doubted my ability to sit through another musical about a close-minded society suppressing Idina Menzel’s magical powers.

With that in mind, I found it hard not roll my eyes when young Elsa was told that because of her destructive magical powers she must lock herself in her room (we might as well just say closet … more on the gay thing later), shut out all of society, and cease to be herself … forever. It was just another iteration of Disney’s so-formulaic-it-hurts setup for character development, the convention of “I want to be normal just like everyone else, and I’m trying my best, but for reasons completely beyond my power, society is telling me I’m not normal, and they must be right about me.” Now where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Alladin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan … I’m just going to stop there. So … utterly … boring.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised at how non-judgmental Elsa’s parents were. They never once told her that she was a disgrace to the family or that she would never amount to anything. They almost seemed a little too perfect, so perfect that they couldn’t possibly hold major roles in the story, as if they were about to be killed off.


I only have good things to say about Anna’s character. She was delightful, and I was glad that she was the true protagonist, because Elsa, all things considered, wasn’t actually a character at all. She was an archetype: the tortured victim of society. Her character couldn’t develop without detracting from the didactic edge the film required in order to takes its place among Disney’s other volumes of the “be true to yourself” theme (you know, that theme they’ve been preaching for the past twenty years).

So … utterly … boring.

Not that the whole film was boring. Honestly, I enjoyed most of it. I loved how there didn’t seem to be a villain, how the conflict revolved around extraordinary characters (with a notable exception) rather than the usual stilted struggle between moderately good and insanely evil. (More on this later.)

Though I have to put my foot down on the unrestrained magic system. There were no checks and balances, no consequences, no thermodynamics. Where did Elsa get the energy to create all of these icicles? How many calories would she have had to consume in order to accidentally freeze an entire lake and cast a perpetual storm over her kingdom? How on earth could she not only output enough hydrogen-di-oxide to build a gargantuan palace but simultaneously craft each molecule into something not only structurally sound but so aesthetically masterful that it would taken a team of architects years to have even drafted? What did she eat while reigning in her barren palace? I’m all for fantasy, but there has to be some semblance of plausibility (or at least consistency).

I mean, if you were Elsa’s parents, and you realized your daughter had magical ice powers … unlimited magical ice powers, why on earth would you shut her up and tell her to think normal thoughts when there’s so much potential for capitalization? You could open your own ski resort in the summer. You could absolutely level the snow cone market. You could take on the armies of the earth with blizzards and ice missiles. Especially when we learn that Elsa not only has the power to bring snow to life but to create giant abominable snowmen in the twinkling of an eye. Why not create an army of these monsters and conquer the world? Because this is a kid’s movie, and Elsa’s not evil? Well, haven’t you heard that with great power comes great responsibility? As long as there’s suffering and injustice in the world, I hold that anyone who’s not actively using their unlimited ice powers for benevolent military campaigns is unethical.

And what’s with the idea of magical powers being something you’re either born with or not? What does that do for the human spirit? How could Elsa possibly develop any real talents or character virtues when she had such incredible instant gratification at her fingertips?

Moving on. Most of the music was charming. “Let it Go” was amazing. Though as soon as the trolls started singing, my wife and I looked at each other, both of us having the same thought: “this just shouldn’t exist.” The trolls were just … lopsided. As clever as a postmodern twist of friendly trolls who are interested in your dating life is, they just didn’t fit in with the rest of the film. Though the movie, as a whole, wasn’t very cohesive to begin with, which was my biggest issue with it. It seems the modern approach to these “family” films is to throw in something for everyone: action sequences, slapstick comedy, witty dialog, romance, drama, passionate musical numbers, silly musical numbers, heroism, villainy, etc., and to assume that the “story” is what happens somewhere in-between. Only this never works. The result is always a hodgepodge of brilliant moments and worthless moments, both engaging and disengaging, occasionally touching, but overall doing little for the soul. I compare it to a disjointed essay in which the author is so tangential that he fails to present a real argument. Who does that?

My case in point: when Prince Hans turns out to be a traitor. So much for a character-driven conflict. “How does this happen? It’s as if someone just completely rewrote your characteristics for the sake of creating pointless drama, regardless of everything you ever said or did before this point” (“How Dead Man’s Chest Should Have Ended“). So … utterly … boring. From this point on, the movie was all downhill. As is typical with most every Disney or Pixar film, as we enter the third act, and character development ceases while action takes over, as the bad guys become unreasonably bad, and there’s no real moral decision for the good guys to make, I find myself ready to sleep. It doesn’t matter how hard the blizzard beats down, or how far separated the boy and girl are, the mere existence of this stilted action is, for me, equivalent to answering exactly how and when the dramatic question will be answered. It ironically kills any suspense I might have been feeling. I’m not saying action has no place, especially as we near a climax, but for heaven’s sake, lower the artificially jacked-up stakes and get back to humanity, not whether or not Sven the reindeer will survive a sudden catastrophic plunge into an icy lake.

Oh, and Sven, I hate to break it to you, but you’re such a late addition to the roster of Disney’s super-intelligent animal confidants, with nothing whatsoever to add in the way of character, that no one cares about you.

As for you, Olaf, another addition to Disney’s roster of short, non-sequitur-spouting comic reliefs … you pass.

I thought it was funny how the movie copied, almost to a tee, the “kiss of true love without actually knowing who your true love is” dilemma as in Disney’s Enchanted. And speaking of stilted, wasn’t it amazing how Anna’s slowly-infecting ice virus decided to leap from taking virtually no effect to transforming her entire body into a solid mass of ice within a split second … just at the right time? And the way she transformed back from a solid mass of ice into human flesh within a few seconds … sadly, this doesn’t appear to be possible. From what I’ve read about cryonics (, the damage the ice crystals would cause to cell tissues during thawing is irreversibly fatal (at least according to modern science, which can hold its own against eighteenth century magic any day).

Lastly, the cryptic gay agenda. Does it exist? Let me pose another question: how could it not exist? With this issue being perhaps the most heated of our time, and considering that it seems Disney writers are only allowed to write about “being true to yourself,” it seems they would have had to have written a very different story to avoid drawing parallels to modern gay rights issues. But do I think the writers intended to incorporate this theme? Absolutely. In my opinion, it’s obviously in there. Do I care? No. As I’ve mentioned, the film can take its place among a plethora of other Disney films with nearly identical morals. Some themes are universal and can be interpreted in many ways, and whether or not this film gives a certain edge to a modern social climate or whether we care to let it take effect is a matter of personal interpretation. The theme I gathered was a good theme. That said, it’s still …

So … utterly … boring.

As a more practical moral, my wife summed up the movie with this: “And thus we learn: don’t deal with your children’s problems in stupid ways.”