Film

Whedon's 'Ultron:' Marvelous

Screenshot from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' trailer.
Screenshot from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' trailer.

From the first Avengers film, Whedon has shown that his primary interest, apart from the utter coolness of watching Hulk destroy a city block, is the dynamics of the Avengers team. This is a group of people with different backgrounds, ideologies, and agendas who might never have come together on their own. That they are forced to work together under impossible circumstances forces those tensions to their breaking point, but also creates a sense of camaraderie that’s thrilling to watch in action.

Working within the conventions of postmodern superheroism, Whedon also addresses the side effects of frequent exposure to violence. It might seem ironic that Captain America (Chris Evans), introduced as the ideal patriot, is one of the group’s more peace-loving members. But as the sole military veteran on the team, his outlook makes sense for someone who’s sacrificed a lot in battle. When he tells Stark, “Every time someone tries to end a war before it starts, innocent people die,” you know he speaks from experience.

'Ex Machina' is 'Frankenstein' for the Digital Age

Screenshot from 'Ex Machina' trailer.
Screenshot from 'Ex Machina' trailer.

The question of what makes us human has been around pretty much as long as we have. Attempts at tackling it have produced a veritable hall of fame of iconic results: Frankenstein. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The entire bibliographies of Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. The list goes on.

But the thing about big unanswerable questions is that although we may never get closer to figuring out the answers, it can be awfully fun and rewarding to keep asking them. And with advances in society and technology, the question of our humanity — and its future — seems to transmogrify by the day.

In the grand legacy of stories about what separates us from the animals (or, in this case, androids), Ex Machina, the directorial debut of screenwriter-novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) is nothing new. It’s a direct descendent of FrankensteinThe Island of Doctor Moreau, and scads of stories that have come before, bringing up classic issues of nature, nurture, and what happens when we play God. But Garland’s sci-fi thriller smartly wears those influences on its sleeve, adding to them a sharply modern sense of style, with a plausible approach that’s both intriguing and troubling to consider.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an employee at a large tech company, who wins a contest to hang out for a week with the company’s reclusive genius founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secluded house/research facility. Upon his arrival, Caleb discovers the real purpose of his visit: Nathan wants him to interact with Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot he’s created, and determine whether she can convincingly pass for human. The conflict arises when Caleb’s true role in Nathan’s test, and Ava’s own mysterious intentions, come under suspicion. How much of Ava’s behavior is what Nathan has programmed into her, and how much is she acting on her own?

Writer-director Garland has always excelled in creating satisfying thrillers with deeper questions in mind, particularly in the realm of exploring uglier parts of human behavior. In Ex Machina, he may have created his best work yet, working with a very small cast in a limited space that gives the characters plenty of chances to turn on each other in subtle, clever ways.

'Batman v. Superman' Is Every Christian’s Battle

Superman. Image via 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' Instagram feed.
Superman. Image via 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' Instagram feed.

Superman was introduced on his first page as a “champion of the oppressed…sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.” Those actions are a fundamental expression of his identity, an inalienable product of who he is. Lara and the Kryptonian scientist Jor-El loved him enough to help him break away from their planet, giving him a chance at life. The farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent raised him in a way that left him intimate with humility and human frailty. Combine those with the confidence that comes with knowing that great power is a simple fact of his anthropology, and Superman can't help but position himself alongside society’s powerless. Crime will always find him because he loves its victims. 

Batman, on the other hand, does not act in response to people he loves. He acts in response to people he hates. At heart, he is still a child overwhelmed by loss and obsessed with lashing back against those that inflicted it upon him. Bruce Wayne (a name cobbled together by his writers so as to leave the reader with a fragrance of colonialism) created the Batman identity and fights crime in his home city so that he can re-shape the world as he sees fit. He was first introduced to readers as fighting a “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” and fighting that battle has always been the measure by which the character has justified his own existence. 

For any Christian who cares enough about social justice to be reading Sojourner’s website, this raises a compelling series of questions: Are you working to make the world more just because you are confident that your Father loves the victims of injustice? Because your King voluntarily shared the plight of the humble? Because you know that the Spirit will make all things new and you want to be a part of giving people a foretaste of that now? Or are you pursuing justice because you’re afraid of what the world will look like if you don’t? Because you can’t see your own value if you aren't "fighting the good fight?"

Secret Orders and Supposed Traitors — TV’s ‘Dig’ Into Religious History

Crusaders. Image via RNS/anonymous master/Wikimedia Commons
Crusaders. Image via RNS/anonymous master/Wikimedia Commons

The pieces of the religious puzzle that make up the USA Network’s biblical conspiracy action series Dig are beginning to fall into place, and the picture they are revealing is one of history — highlighted by a colorful streak of fiction.

Here be spoilers! Read on only if you are up-to-date with the 10-part series, or want to ruin it for yourself and others.

“Order of Moriah”

This secret religious order, supposedly dating from the Crusades, seems to be a product of the Dig writers’ imaginations. But, like many of the show’s fictional aspects, it is based on historical fact.

The Crusades, which mainly took place from 1095 to 1291, were an attempt by the Rome-based Catholic Church to retake the Holy Land — Jerusalem and its environs — away from its Muslim rulers.

During that time, the church founded several monastic religious orders whose members traveled to Jerusalem. Some fought with the armies, some cared for the wounded and sick. The most famous of these orders were the Knights Hospitallers, the Knights Teutonic, and the Knights Templar.

It is perhaps the Templars that the Order of Moriah is based on. Officially named “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” the Knights Templar were anything but poor. They owned land from Rome to Jerusalem and were involved in finance throughout the Christian world. They loaned money to King Philip IV of France and the church.

Confusing Jesus with Daredevil

Image courtesy Marvel's Daredevil on Facebook
Image courtesy Marvel's Daredevil on Facebook

Like many comic book fans, I spent the weekend binging on Daredevil, Marvel’s newest release. The entire first season was created for Netflix, and it dropped in its entirety on Friday. I waited until Saturday night to dig in (longer than some friends of mine), and I was hooked from the opening scene.

It's a scene that opens with Matt Murdock (lawyer-by-day alter ego of the masked vigilante Daredevil) sitting in a confessional. He begins by telling the priest about his father, a boxer who fought harder than his record could ever show. He ends the conversation by asking not for penance, but for future forgiveness — forgiveness for what he’s about to do. “That’s not how this works,” the priest says.

Yet so much of how Murdock as Daredevil works in this latest iteration of the character is how we want it to work. Based closely on Frank Miller’s writing of the character, Daredevil proves to be someone who deals justice unflinchingly. This isn’t someone who hesitates when the situation allows for a grim, overly firm hand. Contrast this with Batman, a character who struggles to commit severe violence even when it seems to be the only option.

Digging Under Mount Moriah with TV’s ‘Dig’

Photo by Ronen Akerman / USA Network / RNS
A scene from the “Dig” pilot Episode 101. Photo by Ronen Akerman / USA Network / RNS

Archaic prayers, hidden keys, and secret religious orders — such are the elements of the latest episode of the USA Network’s biblical conspiracy action series Dig.

Add in a modern re-enactment of one of the most harrowing stories in the Hebrew Bible, and the result is a swirling, baffling stew of religious themes and imagery.

This is your spoiler alert! Read on if you are up to date on Dig or a glutton for punishment.

“It’s all about the End of Days, the Second Coming, Armageddon, the Rapture,” Debbie (Lauren Ambrose) says in what is the clearest explanation by any character of what is going on in Dig to date.

“In order to bring about the Second Coming, the Temple in Jerusalem needs to be rebuilt.”

Here’s a quick summary of some of the religion references in this week’s episode:

'The Salt of the Earth:' Gorgeous Photos in Stark Perspective

Screenshot from 'The Salt of the Earth' trailer.
Screenshot from 'The Salt of the Earth' trailer.

Why do we engage with art? What is about a poem, painting, film, or photograph that can sometimes make them rank among the most impactful experiences of our lives? Sure, skill has a lot to do with it. Aesthetics and story do, too. But one of the things, perhaps the biggest thing that makes art art, and which gives it that extra emotional oomph, is perspective.

Perspective can mean many things. It can mean the point of view from which a story is told. It can mean the way in which something is presented visually; looking down from above, for example, or up from below. More expansively (and when it’s done well), perspective means using all of these to express the worldview of the artist, communicating their thoughts about a subject, or a place, or even just life in general, by what they choose to show us and how they choose to show it.

The Salt of the Earth, Oscar-nominated this year for Best Documentary, is a film about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. But it’s also a film about perspectives. Not just Salgado’s, shown through his life and his art, but also the perspectives of the film’s two directors, the photographer’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and German New Wave auteur Wim Wenders (the director of Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas). Each man approaches the subject with a different point of view — Salgado recounting his own experiences, Juliano as the son who grew up with an often absent father, and Wenders as a fellow artist and long-time admirer of Salgado’s work.

Trials and Tribulations

THE EXTRAORDINARY film Leviathan takes place in a tiny coastal town on the other side of the world, but it relates to all our dreams and fears.

A man is tormented by bureaucracy, as the authorities try to take his house. He has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and a very unhealthy one with his partner. He works on people’s cars, does favors for people who ask him, and tries to raise his son as best he can. And he’s caught between the wheels of historic oppression and emerging forms.

Leviathan, this year’s Russian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a work of uncommon cinematic bravery, for the people who made it take on the corruption of their current political masters. Vladimir Putin appears briefly, as a portrait looming over the office of the mayor trying to take our hero’s house. But the graft, selfishness, and cruelty of Putin’s imperial reign are palpably present in the mayor, who has been fighting the householder for years to get his property, for reasons that owe more than a little to the legacy of Soviet-era patriotic ideology. Communism has been replaced by a heady mix of nationalistic pride and elitism religion, whose boundaries are enforced with no mercy. Pussy Riot’s punk prayer gets a mention in a priest’s litany of things that are undermining Mother Russia. It’s the same old story, there and everywhere—keep the nation pure, confuse spirit and law, and wreck your own life by denying the glories of human diversity.

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#blacklivesmatter in Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s ‘A.D.’

Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS
John, Mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene in “A.D. The Bible Continues.” Photo via Joe Alblas / LightWorkers Media / NBC / RNS

When The Bible miniseries premiered two years ago, controversy swirled around its depiction of a dark-skinned Satan who some said resembled President Obama, as well as its portrayal of white main characters in the Moroccan landscape.

Fast-forward to the premiere of the sequel, A.D. The Bible Continues, on Easter Sunday (April 5), and you’ll see a decidedly more multicultural cast, the result of “honest” conversations between black church leaders and the filmmakers, Hollywood power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

“For too long religious programming has neither reflected the look of biblical times or the diversity of the church today,” tweeted the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a Maryland-based black activist, writer and scholar.

“We made this point to Mark and Roma after #BibleSeries, and quite frankly they listened. I’m glad for that.”

Now, in a partnership with the 12-part NBC miniseries, an African-American Christian publishing house will host online resources to help viewers connect the holy book to Africa.

Jesus Is All Over the Small Screen, and That’s No Accident

Photo via NBC Universal / RNS
Diogo Morgado in Son of God. Photo via Casey Crafford/LightWorkers Media LLC/Hearst Productions/Telemundo/ NBC Universal / RNS

Need proof that biblical entertainment is Hollywood’s holiest trend? Then look no further than Morocco, where three TV projects — National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus, NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues and CNN’s Finding Jesus — were filmed on neighboring sets last year.

“You got this kind of Life of Brian-esque world you’re living in, where on all of our days off, there’s 36 disciples sitting around the pool and three Jesuses at the bar,” said actor Stephen Moyer, who ditched the fangs from True Blood to play Roman governor Pontius Pilate in the Ridley Scott-produced Killing Jesus.

Based on Fox News host Bil O’Reilly’s follow-up to the books he co-wrote with Martin Dugard, Killing Lincoln and Killing KennedyKilling Jesus tracks the last days of the Christian Messiah. Played by Muslim actor Haaz Sleiman, he is portrayed less as a miracle worker and more as a political threat, and the script heightens the sexual tension between Jesus and follower Mary Magdalene (Klara Issova).

“It plays with the idea that Jesus’ teachings are more important than the doing of miracles, that the idea behind what he’s saying is the point and it doesn’t need to have out-of-body, magical elements happening,” Moyer said.

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