Tuesday, June 25, 2013

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013) – Film Review

I almost gagged while watching Monsters University—not from laughing, but from horror. While finishing my sour Skittles, I inadvertently poured the powder at the bottom of the bag into my mouth. It briefly made me feel like life wasn’t worth living.

The movie watching experience was much better. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare the Monsters movies. They are related in that they exist in the same universe and revolve around the same characters. They are also unrelated in that they tell two dramatically different stories. Is one better than the other? I am tempted to say yes. But we’ll get to that a little later.

Plenty of people have bemoaned Pixar’s decline from greatness—something that has been a concern for me as well. Cars 2 and Brave have given us reason to fear. Additionally, the current emphasis on sequels is worrisome—a potential sign that the studio is drifting away from the originality that brought us the likes of Wall-E and Up. In my opinion, though, this particular entry is a return to the Pixar standard we’ve come to expect.

CONTENT (C): 10 out of 10
It’s nice to see such a high caliber effort with such a tame MPAA rating. There is an unfortunate stigma that accompanies most G-rated fare, as if a movie with such a label is too tame to incorporate anything truly interesting. Monsters University defies that stigma.

Time and time again, Pixar films have demonstrated that clean humor can be absolutely hilarious. Monsters U is no exception. With a college campus setting, the filmmakers had ample opportunity to delve into bawdy or bathroom humor, but they continually take the high road. There are no cheap jokes designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This film is solid proof that smart, entertaining, and funny movies don’t need raunchy material in order to tell an engaging story.

Potentially objectionable content in this film is practically nonexistent. The worst is probably when a group of college students break through a fence and trespass on private property, with no apparent repercussions. Overall, though, pivotal character arcs involve remorse and repentance over illegal behavior.

In stark contrast to the overused and generic “be yourself” messages littering children’s films, Monsters U promotes a more substantial—and more heartwarmingly effective—lesson. The American ideal of reaching for the stars and achieving everything you want doesn’t always happen. It is acceptable and helpful to acknowledge that truth. The path of hard work, dedication, and perseverance is fulfilling in its own right, and sometimes it opens doors that might have otherwise remained shut.

ARTISTRY (A): 10 out of 10
This movie might not be as prone to inspire incessant laughter or lumps in the throat as Monsters Inc., but the plot is both stronger and far less predictable. It fits perfectly well in the monster world already established, but the focus is on new and fresh material. Mike and Sully are still Mike and Sully—albeit younger and less mature, giving them room for character growth that beautifully illustrates the film’s message.

As with any Pixar effort, the animation in this movie is beautiful, though this is much more than mere eye candy. The writing is delightfully creative and the vocal performances are top notch. I was never a huge fan of Randy Newman’s score for the first film, but his involvement here provides a subtle connection between both Monsters movies.

PREFERENCE (P): 10 out of 10
Sequels (and prequels) rarely live up to the quality of the original, and fewer still surpass that quality. While I’ll admit to being a huge fan of Monsters Inc.—arguably Pixar’s funniest movie to date—I am tempted to say that, like Toy Story 2, Monsters U is a stronger story than the original.

As I mentioned earlier, it may not tickle the funny bone or pluck the heartstrings as powerfully as the first movie. Even so, the less predictable plot and a message organic to the story combine to produce a superior motion picture. Still, this prequel doesn’t ruin or detract from the original. If anything, it ads to the pleasure provided by the first.

During the wonderful prologue/setup to Monsters University, I had a huge smile on my face. I can’t remember the last time that has happened to me. As the film progressed, my enjoyment only grew. Near the end of the movie, I was almost giggling like a schoolgirl at a Taylor Swift concert. The filmmakers won me over with a rich tapestry of endearing characters, exciting plot twists, innocent humor, and a nostalgic return to the world of Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan.

CAP score: 100%

Two additional points of interest. First, you may want to stick around for the end credits. The short scene afterward isn’t amazing, but it’s worth checking out.

Second, the animated short film that precedes Monsters University is further proof that Pixar hasn’t lost its creative edge just yet. Utilizing advanced technology that enhances photo-realistic computer animation, The Blue Umbrella tells a simple and unusual love story. The humor typical to these types of efforts is absent, replaced by an emphasis on eye candy. While not as entertaining as previous Pixar shorts, it is far from soulless. Pixar continues to push the creative envelope with its short films, and this entry is no exception.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What I Didn’t Learn from Superman

Originally, I had planned on watching Man of Steel this past weekend and writing a movie review for today’s post. Due to scheduling conflicts and some negative film reviews, those plans changed. Now I’m going to write some random thoughts about fatherhood instead. Anyway, the past is in the past and I can’t fly around the world at 100x light speed to turn back time, so here goes.

Who Am I?
With the exceptions of Spider-Man and Dick Tracy in the daily newspaper, I never kept up with the world of comics. I have still enjoyed the stories of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. This new Superman movie seems to paint the superhero with an atypical portion of moral ambiguity and inner turmoil. Whatever the case, this version of Clark has serious issues with identity crisis. A scene in Man of Steel (revealed in the trailers) shows a young Clark asking his earthly father, “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?” His father’s emotional reply is, “You are my son.” Which leads to my next thought.

Learn to Be a Son
John Piper was recently interviewed for our city’s newspaper. In the article, he gives two pieces of advice to fathers. Both are good, but I found the first to be especially profound—albeit, in a simple manner: “Dads, start with being a son, and I mean a son of God, and if you’re not a son of God get that right through faith in Jesus. Start by being reconciled to your Father.”

It’s weird, but it almost felt as if Dr. Piper was speaking directly to me when giving this answer. The gravity of being a father hit me square in the chest. In fact, I believe the Holy Spirit was impressing upon my heart the truth of those words. Why? Because of my last thought for this post.

New Seasons, Additional Roles
I myself have become a father. Our child hasn’t been born yet (we still have several months before that happens), but we know it is a girl and we have her name picked out. I may not be changing diapers and waking up a half dozen times each night, but I have still entered a new season of life.

In order to be a good father, I need to remember that I am a son. By divine mercy, I have been born again (to use Christ’s words) and brought into the family of God. To be a truly successful father, to be an authority figure who serves others and doesn’t abuse his position, I need to see myself for who I am—or, more accurately, I need to see myself for whose I am. I am under authority, and God’s prerogatives must inform all my fatherly plans.

Or, to put it more positively, I can hope to be a good father because I am the recipient of the greatest charity from the greatest Father of all. His love has enabled me to love truly and strongly and deeply—not the simple, self-serving love that I am naturally inclined towards, but the deep and others-focused love with which God Himself has loved me.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What I Learned from Wetting My Pants

So there I was, surrounded by church members, my pants wet, my blood boiling. This wasn’t what I needed—at least, that’s what I told myself.

The morning had started innocently enough. Shannon and I arrived at our church building later than normal. Because of the pouring rain and the packed parking lot, I said I would drop Shannon off at the front and then go park and bring our Bibles and notebooks in. (After all, with an umbrella and a raincoat at my disposal, my trek across the parking lot wouldn’t be too bad.)

Shannon didn’t want me lugging the books in the rain, so she grabbed them before heading into the building. I then parked near the back of the lot and reached for the umbrella.

It wasn’t there. Not in the back seat…not in the front seat. Not anywhere. Shannon must have taken it inside with her.

Okay. No big deal. I still had my raincoat, and thanks to my memory of a once-watched YouTube video, I had learned the trick to staying relatively dry while traveling in the rain: walking instead of running. With this scientific knowledge, I got out of the car and leisurely made my way indoors.

I’m not the best scientist—and, evidently, not the most attentive YouTube video watcher. As I later discovered, I hadn’t correctly remembered that walking is actually less effective than running in the rain. I had inadvertently given the weather just enough time to turn my jeans into a pair of swimming trunks.

If you’re laughing (or even just smiling), know that in the moment it was no laughing matter. Do you realize how uncomfortable it is to move around in wet jeans? It’s about as fun as trying to take a shower while dressed in a suit.

Making my way to the second row, I found Shannon—and our umbrella. Our dry, unused umbrella, lying peacefully on the floor. The music had already begun, so I tried focusing on the words.

But words are cheap, especially when your legs are being constantly hugged by a blanket of wet denim. I considered driving home and changing pants, but that would mean missing at least 40 more minutes of the service. I even briefly contemplated putting my jeans in the church’s kitchen oven to dry them off, but that wouldn’t work. With few realistic options at my disposal, I went to the bathroom and tried using paper towels to dry myself off. I ended up with several wet paper towels and pants that were still maddeningly moist.

Back in the sanctuary, I found myself becoming increasingly angry. Why did Shannon take the umbrella with her? Didn’t she know I would need it? Now I would be stuck with damp legs for the duration of the service. I probably wouldn’t get anything out of the sermon.

As my legs became more chilled in the air-conditioned building, my affection for Shannon grew colder and colder. Soon, I dreaded the next time I had to interact with her. I just knew I would say something harsh that I would later regret. As far as I was concerned, the morning—and probably the day—was ruined.

Finally, having exhausted my pitifully limited resources, I prayed in desperation, Lord, I can’t stop being angry about this. Will you please help me to view this situation rightly? I can’t do this on my own. And please let my pants dry quickly so that I can focus during the sermon.

The answer was almost immediate. Like every sinner in history who has a life-changing encounter with the living God, I experienced two things at once: an awakened conscience and a heightened awareness of grace. My inner monologue—inspired, I am sure, by the Holy Spirit—went something like this:

Cap, you’re being selfish. You’re hopping mad because Shannon didn’t do exactly what you wanted. Do you think she took the umbrella on purpose? She likely grabbed it along with the Bibles and notebooks because she didn’t want you to have to walk across the parking lot carrying an armload of items in the rain.

Besides, have you forgotten what your marriage illustrates? As Shannon’s husband, you are called to lay down your life for her as Christ did for His bride. It was His privilege to absorb the wrath of God on your behalf. For the joy set before Him, He endured the suffering of the cross.

Before I even knew it, my heart’s posture had changed from anger to joy. Would I want Shannon to have gotten soaked so that I could stay dry? Of course not. It was a privilege to have my wife safe and dry by my side. Though my act of parking the car was miniscule when compared to Christ’s servanthood, my wet pants were a badge of honor (and stupidity, yes). If Christ took the heat of God’s wrath so that I might be spared, why could I not even rejoice that I absorbed some raindrops so my wife could stay dry?

God took a modest trial to remind me just how great His love is. It changed my perspective of my situation. It changed my attitude toward my wife. And it filled my heart with greater joy in the goodness of the gospel of God.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Accidentally Hating what God Loves

As an amateur theologian with enough knowledge to make me dangerous, I have gotten myself in the thick of various pickles. (I’m mixing my metaphors, aren’t I? See, I’m dangerous.) Over the past few weeks, I might have inadvertently encouraged the pursuit of one such pickle: a loathing for the law of God.

If all the law does is show me what I must but cannot do, then the law is basically nothing more than a constant reminder of my failures. That’s not much to celebrate, is it? Well, the truth is that we have been focusing on only one of the law’s uses, but it actually has three. It functions as a curb, a mirror, and a guide.

A Curb
First, the law “helps to control violent outbursts of sin and keeps order in the world” (Luther’s Small Catechism). In this respect, it doesn’t change human nature for the better. It simply restrains us from doing what we would otherwise do.

A Mirror
Second, the law “accuses us and shows us our sin” (Luther’s Smaller Catechism). It lets us see our reflection—and the sight is horror-film-level scary. This is the use of the law I had become familiar with—too familiar.

A Guide
The law has a third use: It “teaches us Christians what we should and should not do to lead a God-pleasing life. . . . The power to live according to the Law comes from the Gospel” (Luther’s Small Catechism). With this use, the law warmly lights our darkened path and reveals where we need to go.

The law shows us a beautiful standard: God’s standard. It proclaims what He values and what He hates. By revealing God’s will to us, it helps us see who God is and what He is like. It shows what is possible only for the Christian: loving obedience to His commands.

In the first two uses, the law brings an outward control on us that may provide some societal benefit (peace and order), but it doesn’t bring any inward reformation. Our behavior might change (to a limited degree), but our hearts do not. With these two uses of the law, we only experience what Paul calls its dominion over us (Rom. 7:1). It can only coerce and condemn.

The third use of the law comes into play only after a person experiences the new birth. Once a person is born again, the law does something it couldn’t do before—provide an inward control. When the gospel bears fruit to salvation, God puts His law in our minds and writes it on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). With this use of the law, we are compelled to love God from within.

When the law comes down on us from the outside, bringing its condemning power with it, our hearts respond to the pressure in this way: they “bear fruit to death” (Rom. 7:5). But when we die to the outward dominion of the law and experience the inward dominion of the law, the fountain of our heart changes: we “bear fruit to God” (Rom. 7:4). An outward compulsion of the law brings forth sin and death. An inward compulsion of the law brings forth righteousness and life.

Notice that I haven’t contradicted any of my earlier statements. Even as believers, we can never obey the law of God by ourselves. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Php. 4:13) isn’t code for, “I can now do all things by myself.” No, Jesus tells His disciples, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Obedience to the law of God only comes by the power of the gospel of God.

So we see that the law and the gospel are vastly different, though not in a contradictory sense. Just as melody and harmony combine to provide greater musical texture, so the law and gospel work in unity to glorify the saving work of Jesus Christ. The law shows us what is good and right and true—but gives us no power to follow it. Through the gospel, God promises to do in us that which is humanly impossible: willingly and happily obey Him.

This article concludes our series on the distinctions between law and gospel. You can read the series in its entirety by clicking on the “law vs. gospel” label at the bottom of this post.