Lone Survivor

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“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”
― G.K. Chesterton

Marcus Luttrell’s childhood might read to some like the start of a Jeff Foxworthy joke, “you might be a Texan if…”

  • you grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone
    • your father trained you how to survive in the wild and fire a rifle before you were 10 years old
    • your brother wrestles alligators and water moccasins
    • you are six feet five inches tall and 240 lbs…

But what is most uncommon about Luttrell is his iron will. From 12 years of age, he decided he wanted to become a Navy SEAL. He and his twin brother put themselves under the mentorship of a former member of the special forces, who trained Marcus and a dozen other teenagers.

Eventually, Marcus began training in BUD/S (basic underwater demolition SEAL training).

Pushups by the hundreds, after a shower underneath ice water from a sandblaster many hours before the sun would rise, only to run into the pacific ocean, roll in sand and get barked at by an ever-circling group of trainers trying to find his breaking point. He and a small team spent hours hauling a 180 lb. inflatable raft through sinking sand, soaking wet in a cold that bites into your bones, pulling against frozen muscles and oaring that raft against wave after wave out to sea, where they’d capsize the boat, turn it upright, return & repeat. Then a sprint to the chow hall for lunch.

All this torture trained the men who were able to endure it to live the mantra “never give up the fight”. They had all taken from the training a deep-seated confidence in themselves and their brothers in arms, not to mention the mental discipline to push themselves farther and harder than they ever dreamed possible.

So when Marcus Luttrell, Danny Dietz, Matthew Murphy, and Matt Axelson found themselves outnumbered 40 to one, cut off and surrounded, tumbling down the rocky face of a cliff, they did not panic, they fought on. They braced one another up. They each endured multiple gunshot wounds, broken bones and severe blood loss so that their brothers could survive. And when Axelson tells Luttrell, “If I die, tell my wife how much I love her. I want her to know that I died with my brothers, with a full heart,” suddenly I understand where these men get their strength.

Marcus’s book is easy to read, and it’s hard to read. The words are what one might expect from a well-educated man of character, disciplined by the special forces. They are direct. What is hard to accept, of course, is that these men are gone.

Similarly, the movie is excellent, but also hard to take in. Peter Berg and the cast do an amazing job of planting the audience in the battlefield with the SEAL team. Instead of the usual sprawling epic most war films go for. Lone Survivor keeps things small and efficient – powerful.

In the movie, Luttrell makes a few cameo appearances, has one line of dialogue. His character is on board the helicopter with 18 other soldiers sent on the failed rescue mission that cost all 19 men their lives when an R.P.G. took the helicopter down. I believe it was symbolic of what Luttrell had said in interviews before the movie’s national release, something voiced in the final minutes of the movie, “A part of me died on that mountain. A part of me is dead up there with my brothers.”

It is at this point where perhaps even a war hero might finally give up the fight. But Luttrell’s brothers continue to support him, even after their death. “But another part of me,” Luttrell says, “lives on to share the story.”

Luttrell crawled away from the mountain. His hip was broken. He suffered gun shot wounds and nearly bit his tongue in half. He crawled miles to a village where he was given shelter and eventually rescued. And after speaking with his family over the phone while being air-lifted to a hospital to confirm he had survived and after a long physical recovery, Marcus went back into the field of battle.

He is currently retired, his body unable to perform the tasks required of a SEAL at war. But he has begun a new season of life, and found a new way to fight, always acknowledging the courage and loyalty of his brothers.

All too easily, the Americans who thrive on the freedom these men pay for in blood give up on life. It’s too costly, too painful, too uncertain, involves too much risk, requires too much strength, gives too little in return. Even for those of us who have not served in the military, the story is very challenging. All good stories, the ones worth sharing, are about salvaging or preserving relationships. In this case, Luttrell’s mission is to tell the world how these men died, and how they lived. The story challenges all of us with their example, their calling.

What does it mean to have a full heart? What could possess a man to endure such things, to risk death?

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Man of Steel

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Comic book films generally fall into two categories: dark, pensive and colored in with moral grey areas, or straight-laced and lighthearted, but generic. Man of Steel leans closer to the latter of the categories, but what makes this story work is the identity theme.

The silver screen fades in from black with Lara-El giving birth to the title character. The opening scene is beautiful, but strange – a tone the film keeps for every reveal of the hero and his purpose. The opening scene is strange because Kal-El is borne at home in a world advanced far beyond our own in every way. Later in the story, it is divulged that Kryptonians have used genetic engineering for centuries, incorporating birthing matrices that would make Agent Smith giggle with glee.

Kal-El’s parents had cautioned their people about the dangers of overextending their species and their planet in the name of evolution; drying up natural resources and harvesting offspring like crops. Their wise warnings go unheeded, Krypton inevitably succumbs to its inhabitants’ zeal and is physically destroyed. Kal-El, still an infant and the only naturally-born member of his race, escapes the destruction of Krypton in a pod, along with the DNA coding of his ancestors.

A vengeful General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his 90’s fashion-statement cronies have escaped as well, after a failed coups d’etat, and they’re looking for a new planet and ancient DNA to re-start their race.
The critics’ concensus for the latest comic book blockbuster is that it’s all shiny effects on the outside, hollow on the inside. The usual reasoning behind this critique is that the superhero epic is too large to shoulder a real dramatic, engaging story with millions of dollars worth of special effects.

Man of Steel darts back and forth between a linear story and flashbacks, a discovery of the hero’s origins and escalating tensions to give action to the current setting. I like all that popcorn action stuff with oil rigs ablaze and spectacular alien-vs-A10 battles. But really, the dramatic tone of the movie is with Kal-El’s relationship to his biological father, Jor-El paralleled with Clark Kent’s relationship to his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent.

This is where the Man of Steel finds his heart. Like so many children, Clark (Henry Cavill) is overwhelmed with finding a sense of belonging among his peers. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), is not the perfect father, but he is a good mentor. Jor-El’s (Russel Crow) consciousness (think interactive holograph/entity) also mentors the young man, telling him to push himself to his limits, telling him he can save both the world he came from and the one he calls home. But it’s Jonathan’s working-man’s wisdom that resonates best.

It’s different to think of a Superman who grew up being bullied, with the written works of ancient philosophers being kicked in his face; but Jonathan encourages his son to restrain himself: “You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world. ”

This movie might not be dark and edgy, it might be straight-laced. And the comic relief could have used better lines than, “Well, Mr. Kent, welcome to the [Daily] Planet.” All this, and the plot holes can be forgiven for the relationships we see play out. Fatherhood is as much a part of the story as Clark Kent is a part of Superman.

My overall rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, and for some language

Saving Mr. Banks

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“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” – C.S. Lewis

P.L. Travers’ book series about a flying English nanny were being forgotten. The books are still remembered by many, including Walt Disney himself, but by the 60’s they were something left to gather dust on bookshelves. To make the nanny fly again meant essentially betraying the very character that preserved something from the writer’s childhood. Travers unwillingness to forgive a real-life character written in to her stories might have ended Mary Poppins’ legacy.

That Mary Poppins is based on a real person is divulged in the movie trailer for Saving Mr. Banks and it needs to be. This tidbit is the only thing that saves the movie from coming across as 100% Hallmark-quality fluff. Questions of how real history has been kept hidden in the fictional re-telling, why and which character needs forgiveness is what makes the film actually work, even if it takes most of the film to finally get to the answer.

The reason so much of the runtime is spent on the conflict between Disney’s romaticism and Travers’ realism, is because there is some un-riddeling to be done on the part of the former in order to breathe a blend of live-action and animated life into the early 1900s nanny.

Flashbacks do the heavy lifting when it comes to reveals and are interwoven throughout the story from beginning to end. For this reason, the role of young Travers’ and her father are essential, as they are the only thing that shows the audience what Marry Poppins means to the adult P.L. Travers, aside from the predictably solid performance of Emma Thompson (who really shines in the second and third acts).  Casting Colin Farrell as the father was a choice that paid off in spades. He plays the role wonderfully, and has an excellent chemistry with actress Annie Rose Buckley, who plays his daughter.

The father has astonishing energy. He is able to keep up with his children in all their adventures, which he himself creates as easily, if not better than any of them. He also relies heavily on drinking to deal with the stresses and monotony of every day life, encouraging his daughter to keep dreaming and never live in the reality of the people who spend their lives working for money.

All this is somewhat cliché, but it is shown with subtlety and the memories that haunt Mrs. Travers gradually reveal her buried fears. They also compliment the purpose behind Walt’s fascination with fantasy, which Mrs. Travers felt violated the character she loved so much.

The trouble is, all these touching reveals are only brought to life in the third act, something that couldn’t be avoided after the filmmakers decided to draw out the conflict through a kind of mystery. Everybody loves a good mystery, but it took some time to get to the real story behind the real Mary Poppins: a little girl whose heart had been broken by a father whom she adored, who caused deep pain which introduced the nanny into her life.

click to watch 3:39 of Mary Poppins with my favorite character

The real story was not a fairy-tale ending. So the question is why did the authoress allow Disney to re-write history? The way Saving Mr. Banks answers this question is the climax of the movie and its strongest point. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, there is more to some fairy tales than song and dance, which is why we remember them so well.

overall rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t have the whimsical quality of adventure that was featured in its predecessor. Although there is comic relief a-plenty in the first half of the movie, as the sprawling journey continues late into the second act, the adventure is much more treacherous, with dark sorcery and a “shadow that grows in darkness.” The ring itself has an intensifying presence, which is necessary to raise the stakes for a sequel; it is at once employed by Bilbo in helping the heroes and undermining their cause.

As the dwarves journey back to Erebor, they come across many characters that are affected in similar ways by the growing darkness, and each responds to this knowledge in similar fashion. Beor, a “skin changer,” or man/bear (or ‘bare’ man, if you like, since he shows his backside in the moonlight after changing from beast to man) interests himself only in protecting his own land and borders. Likewise, the wood elves, including Legolas, only protect their territory. All, except the dwarves and Legolas’s love interest, are unwilling to take the fight to their enemy – which plays right into his hands. Laketown, for example, a wasteland that was once a thriving city, is allowing the dragon to sleep – unwilling to attack, allowing their enemy to strengthen.

For all their bullheadedness and mistrust, the dwarves’ courage is their redeeming virtue, even if they are forced to risk it all because their kingdom has already been taken. This irony is the connecting tissue in a story that covers a lot of geographical ground and many plot-lines.

However, the movie does fall short concerning the dwarves’ love of their kingdom. It would have been much more compelling with just a few more minutes of dialogue among the dwarves reminiscing over their lost home, in order to understand what it means to them and how it’s changed them. This, and allowing the camera to rest on the key characters for more than a split second so that the audience could read them, would have gone a long way in conveying their personal loss.

The way the audience sees their longing to reclaim their kingdom is in their willingness to fight Smaug, but they are a barbaric and stubborn people by nature anyway. This willingness by itself doesn’t clearly convey their deep sense of loss. There is great opportunity to sharpen the contrast between the dwarves’ love of gold and their love for the place they call home that isn’t touched on except in a few fleeting moments in the last hour of the movie. These moments are sandwiched between their journey to Erebor and the tension-wrought pause before they enter Smaug’s stolen treasure hoard.

Even so, the movie is supremely enjoyable, while intense, and the sequel keeps much of the same lighthearted spirit among the dwarves as they Forest-Gump their way through adventure, with some good fortune (a major theme in J.R.R. Tolkein’s books), help from friends and unwitting foes, and the power of loyalty.

One particular scene stands out above all, unifying other scenes that offer exposition of the worsening condition of Middle Earth. The dwarves and their thief, Bilbo, are deep in a forest, possessed by a spirit of deception. The deeper the caravan travels into the heart of the forest, the more saturated their minds are with deception and that carries a terrible weight. Bilbo climbs a tree to get his bearings, and once he clears the cover of the forest, his mind is free from confusion, duress and the growing anger that began to turn the group on itself.

Speaking as a Christian, this scene is a clear picture of the respite the believer needs from the world, in order to further the Kingdom of God here, and it is well paired with the picture of courage that is necessary in taking the fight to our spiritual enemy.

 

The Book Thief

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A train carries 12 year old Liesel Meminger to a snow-laden town in Germany, just before the Second World War. Her biological mother is a communist, and she puts  Liesel up for adoption to save her from Nazi persecution. Liesel’s adoptive parents, Hans the “lazy pig” and his wife, “the witch” Rosa, need a stipend to support themselves. Thus, the arrangement that upends Liesel’s world is made.

Death himself is the narrator who breaks precedent when he finds Liesel on the train and takes a personal interest in her. It’s not often Death finds a life story worth sharing, he doesn’t see many souls worth remembering. Death’s musings on life, humans, and the conditions under which he meets with them are clinical, cold, and of course, spoken in the Queen’s English. More importantly, Death’s musings are a portrait of what we leave in our wake and how well we have spent our time.

Liesel’s new parents, Hans and Rosa keep their political and moral opinions veiled from the Nazi regime, and their hidden Jewish companion, Max is an even more closely guarded secret. Max and Liesel have much in common, both children of widows, who keep their identity a secret as a matter of survival, and both have stolen books.

Liesel is too young to understand why the world is so cruel, but she has a way with words, and as she learns from Max, words are life. With Hans teaching Liesel to read and, Max to encourage her writing, Liesel has an escape from the propaganda machine.

This is a very simple, but also wandering story. After the circumstances of Liesel’s new life are set, the movie sort of meanders through its scenes, without much in the way of a traditional narrative. This is why many critics gave the movie a low rating, but for audiences, the uneven pace may reflect the ebb and flow of life. The pace is also easy to accept, due to the richness of the characters.
Precious few movies have the courage to place so much of the weight on the characters, especially when the cast is virtually absent of “A-listers”. Hans was brilliantly and effortlessly played by Geoffrey Rush, who is known to most movie-goers as Captain Barbosa of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Rosa is played equally well by Emily Watson, a recognizable name, but neither of these names are enough on their own to sell a movie ticket. This is refreshing because Rush and Watson are not just character actors, they have range, and the success of their roles relies not just on stereotype, but on the writing, directing and performances, which are all done exceptionally well.

It’s also refreshing to watch a movie that invites you to step inside the story. Rush and Watson have great chemistry. But it’s the chemistry between Rush and newcomer Sophie Nélisse that really drives the movie. It is because they bring such profound joy to the comic relief and such weight to the drama that most audiences won’t mind the uneven flow of the movie’s pace.

Most of all, I loved this movie because it reminds us that death, in many ways, can be beaten – only when we have the courage to risk death to live a full life.