On the run with Baby Driver

What’s your favorite song? Sorry, that’s a vague question. What’s your go-to road trip song? How about your shower song? Do you have a song for rainy days? What do you listen to after a break up? Is there a song that makes you dance involuntarily? Music can serve so many of our emotional needs. It’s hard to imagine life without the songs we pull into our own personal soundtracks. Baby Driver, writer/director Edgar Wright’s new film, begs us to inspect our lists of go-to tracks and wonder what they tell us about how we see the world.

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For Baby, the title character in the film innocently played by Ansel Elgort, life is about escaping and there is no greater escape than music. The life pumped through his earbuds not only drowns out the tinnitus he acquired as a boy, but also pulls him out of the dangerous activities he’s being forced into. Baby has a face and a heart that fits his name but a life that’s filled with crime, drugs, and violence. This duality of morality pushes him into the songs in his many iPods to drown out the hum in is ears and the ringing of his conscience.

In his life of crime, is there a better profession for someone like Baby, constantly on the run from himself and others, than a getaway driver? In fact, Baby is the best getaway driver Atlanta has ever seen. The darkest day of his life happened in a car and as soon as he could see over the wheel (and learn how to steal cars) he made sure the driver’s seat would become his sanctuary. Somewhere along the line, Baby boosted the wrong car and found himself in serious debt with Doc, a notorious crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. Under Doc’s thumb, all Baby can do is listen to his music and drive. During the film, he pushes the pedal to the metal speeding closer and closer to freedom from what his life has become.

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It took Wright years to make this film because he broke many of the rules of traditional filmmaking. He assembled the soundtrack and wrote the scenes around the songs. Normally, movies are made the other way around…writing the scenes and then finding the music for them. It’s easier that way because you may not get licenses for the music. However, Wright had a vision and what a vision it was! He created a symphony with the world around Baby. Footsteps, car horns, tire squeals, sirens, screams, explosions, and gun shots sync to the beats placing the audience into Baby’s ears.

Anyone familiar with Wright’s other works (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) will appreciate his attention to detail. The soundtrack to Baby Driver has the diversity of a Guardians of the Galaxy more than it does the Pitbull laden playlists of your typical cars and crime action romps. Like a deep track book of Psalms, the music takes you on a ride through just about every possible human emotion. It is the kind of soundtrack that proves no song can be your favorite for every occasion.

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Baby Driver asks you to take this ride through Baby’s shuffle to find out just what kind of person he is. Is he a victim of circumstance? Is he more of a willing participant than he lets on? Baby can’t escape these questions forever. Luckily, music isn’t just a method of escape but is also how Baby experiences and processes the world. The life Baby leads is so saturated with music that his steps are in time. The slow jams give him time to reflect on his crimes, the screeching guitar solos perfectly accompany his anger, the break-up songs help explore his trauma, and the love songs help him hope for a better tomorrow.

Our favorite tunes offer us the same invitation to allow the words, the notes, and the spirit move us through whatever we’re dealing with. Watching and listening to Baby Driver might give you some new songs for your playlists but hopefully it also helps you think about what you’re using as your guide of melodic self-reflection. This is one of those films we’ll study in film schools because of its spectacular craftsmanship. It captures the complexity of being human in a unique way. So don’t be surprised if it also helps you study yourself. What songs are you drawn to and when? What are you often working through? What are you escaping from? Sometimes you have to face your music.

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Baby Driver Psalms Companion

Looking to take a ride through human emotion? The Book of Psalms in the Bible is God’s ultimate playlist. Here are some of the themes pulled out of Baby Driver and a selection of Psalms to help guide you through them.

Who are we?

Psalm 8

Psalm 139

Break up

Psalm 147

Love

Psalm 136

Conviction

Psalm 51

Celebration

Psalm 148-150

Hope

Psalms 16

Psalm 23

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

Let me describe a scene to you from the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Tell me if it feels familiar to you. The story’s lead Jyn Erso has agreed to help the Rebel Alliance gain access to her former mentor Saw Gerrera. They travel to Empire occupied Jedha, home to Gerrera and an ancient Jedi Temple. It’s not long before Erso and the rebels are caught up in scuffle, as Star Wars rebels tend to do. Erso is being led around the planet by rebel leader Cassian Andor. Andor has been carrying the weight of rebellion on his shoulder for years. He is constantly burdened by the safety of the mission and his team. There is a pride to this burden and this pride leads to my least favorite scene in the movie.

In the middle of the skirmish, Andor is leading Erso around a chaotic battlefield reminiscent of scenes of modern warfare we’re used to today. Naturally, Andor can’t possibly account for every danger around every corner and he and Erso get cornered by a squad of dreaded Stormtroopers. Looking at Andor you see the face of failure. They’re doomed, dead where they stand. Suddenly, Erso kicks into high gear and drops both the troopers and Andor’s jaw. He can’t believe Erso single-handedly dismantled the troopers. He can’t believe Erso, who is the mentee of the very accomplished rebel they were there to find, who had been providing for herself for the better part of a decade in a conflict-heavy galaxy, who he had rescued from a prison labor camp alongside other hardened criminals, who is the daughter of one of the greatest geniuses in the galaxy, could possibly have the skills to survive that situation. So why is Andor surprised?

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Andor is probably surprised because decades of film history have told him that whenever a woman fends for herself, its surprising. This is a feeling of surprise Han and Luke felt the minute Princess Leia grabbed a blaster and led them down the garbage shoot. So here we are, it’s 2017, and we have our first big-screen adaptation of the world’s most famous superheroine, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been around for decades, and, in that time, has fought her way from the Justice League’s secretary to one of the busts carved into DC Comics’ Mount Rushmore alongside her fellow pop culture icons of Batman and Superman. One would hope that, as we’ve entered a moment in cinematic history where studios are ready to put women in the title role and in the director chair, we would stop being surprised by what women are capable of. One would hope…

Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and her male companion, Stever Trevor, enter a dark London alley. They’re carrying crucial intelligence the British military needs to gain an advantage in World War I and are being pursued by undercover German soldiers. Just like Erso and Andor in the battle on Jehda, Trevor leads them into a corner. He doesn’t see a way out, and he’s burdened by a need to find a way out of this hopeless situation. A German gun goes off and Trevor knows the bullet’s for him. A “ping” familiar to Wonder Woman fans rings out as Prince stops the bullet with her signature cuffs. Trevor’s jaw drops. He’s surprised that Wonder Woman, the one who saved him from a plane crash, the one who he watched take out a dozen German soldiers in an earlier battle, a woman he learned is from an advanced race of Amazon warriors from a supernaturally hidden home world, could possibly be the solution to them surviving the ambush.

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Wonder Woman, as a film, is filled with breathtaking action scenes, charmingly fun banter between interesting characters, and some of the coolest, most memorable superhero moments committed to film. It belongs at the top of the list of DC’s most recent efforts and right alongside its Marvel Comics (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) peers. As reviews for the film have been positive, and as Wonder Woman continues to be a cultural icon, my fear is that story that comes out of the box office this weekend will be headlined by surprise.

Wonder Woman will lead the box office in bouncing back from the lowest Memorial Day numbers in about a decade. Last week, two movies were released that were supposed to kick start the summer cinema season. Helmed by a juggernaut franchise and a human juggernaut in The Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch were financial disappointments. They led the summer into a dark alley and had studios questioning if they’d survive. Here comes Wonder Woman to save the day.

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Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

We live in a world with Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, who led successful peace negotiations between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips. We live in a world with Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director who not only became the first female African America director to helm a $100 million budget movie with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time but, also, created the wildly complex and riveting Queen Sugar, a show she intentionally hires up-and-coming female directors to lead. We live in a world with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years for her political activism before being elected to lead the Myanmar government. We live in a world with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and sexual assault survivor/activist Kayla Harrison, activist for female education Malala, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa. We live in a world where more women than men are graduating college. We even live in a world where even American Ninja Warrior has seen Jessie Graff break course records. There are women of wonder all around us.

The success of Wonder Woman shouldn’t be a surprise, and, hopefully, will send a clear message that we’re ready for more. Just recently, Academy Award winning actress Jessica Chastain, while serving on the Canne Film Festival jury, commented on the current climate of female representation in film, “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” For this to change, our view of what women are capable of has to change. We have to believe women can lead brilliant, complex and compelling stories because they live those stories every day.

We’ve come a long way and Wonder Woman might be the beginning of something great. Her character, like the women of the world, has fought for her place on the marquee. We have forced women to fight for their place at the voting booth, in the classroom, in the lab, on the hill, in the battlefield, at the finish line, and in the conference room. Women will continue to fight, so when will men stop being surprised when they can fight better than us?

Justice League

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2016

It may seem like this year we’ve lost too much. Celebrities, loved ones, journalism, gorillas, never having seen Kevin Spacey as a cat…we saw major losses in these areas in the year that was 2016. While we can lament these as well as a summer of fairly disappointing blockbusters, 2016 still did produce some incredible cinema experiences.

While we were never quite mentally prepared for the darkness of Nocturnal Animals, couldn’t pull together the energy to watch another Tom Hanks biopic in Sully, and were scared away by mixed reviews for Snowden and Florence Foster Jenkins, we did make it to the movies a lot this year. So as we all anxiously await the release of 2017’s hottest offerings (ex: Monster Trucks), and spend our holiday off time looking to catch up on what this past year gave us, here are my top ten favorite movies of 2016.

10. The Lobster (R)

The Lobster is really weird. In this story’s dystopian future, heartthrob Colin Farrell is a virtually un-datable slob. His character is then forced to a remote resort where the goal is to find your mate and marry them. The catch is that if you fail to find your mate in the allotted time you will live your remaining days transformed into an animal of your choosing. If you can handle that odd premise along with some explicit content, The Lobster offers a very unique and insightful commentary on who we chose to love. This was by far the most unique movie watching experience I had this year, but it will not be for everyone.

9. Sing Street (PG-13)

Yes, I saw La La Land, and no, it was not my favorite musical of the year. That title belongs to Sing Street. Director John Carney knows how to make musical movies…or are they movies with music? Either way they are enjoyable. You may know him for Once or Begin Again, both worth checking out if you haven’t. The back drop of Sing Street is the grayscale dinge of poverty-stricken Dublin in the 1980’s. Contrast that with the synthy bright colors of 80’s pop like Culture Club and Duran Duran and you have the stand-out coming-of-age movie of the year. Not only that, but at least once a week, I find the music in my head.

8. Fences (PG-13)

A theme that has emerged from many of my favorite films this year has been generational patterns and familial influence on our behaviors and personality. Fences takes place entirely on a back patio in a working-class neighborhood in pre-civil rights Pittsburgh and brings the poetry of playwright August Wilson to life. I left the film wondering aloud if Denzel Washington’s Troy was a good man and I’m sure almost anyone who experiences this story might answer that question differently. The characters are layered and emotions run deep with the pains of being a generation before the waves of significant change. Still, the patterns both in this family and the world are relevant for today’s culture. Are we doomed to repeat these same patterns? Are you above the mistakes of the past? Are you a good person? Fences makes you confront these questions.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

There’s a chance that I will always be a supporter of having more Star Wars. Sometimes with that worldview, I get burnt. (Looking at you, droid-centric episodes of Clone Wars) With Rogue One, though, I felt the weight of the galactic rebellion more than ever and was given more context and depth to the universe I’ve loved for so long. Not many blockbusters landed on my list this year, but with its diverse cast and war-like feel, I couldn’t ignore the first in hopefully many Star Wars anthology movies.

Read my complete review here

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (PG-13)

2008’s Cloverfield will always be one of the most memorable times I’ve had at the movies. It was point-of-view found footage done right. It was large in scale. It put audiences into a monster attack of a major city. 10 Cloverfield Lane is its wildly different sequel…maybe prequel…maybe not related at all thing and it was my favorite horror movie of the year. It locks you in a bunker with a few of the best performances of the year. Growing up watching Rosanne, I did not know I would be floored by the work John Goodman is capable of, but he carried this movie. The suspense, the mystery, the terror of this story rests on his shoulders and they are broad.

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5. Jackie (R)

If Rogue One gave me some welcome context to the fictional history of Star Wars, then Jackie did the same for actual U.S. history. We often hear tales of our highest office through the lives of the men who held it, but at different times in our country’s story the narrative was advanced by women. Director Pablo Larrain worked very hard to make this story about Jackie Kennedy her story. Even when President Kennedy is on screen he is in the peripheral. It is difficult to imagine all that Jackie was juggling in the weeks after JFK’s assassination, but Jackie sheds light on what it might have been like. It’s heartbreaking, powerful, religious, and probably the best performance by an actress this year.

4. Arrival (PG-13)

We struggle in our current climate to understand each other. Arrival sends an impactful message that we need other people, other cultures in our lives and does so through an inventive science fiction world. It also demonstrates how deep the divide in cross-cultural communication can be while giving hope that it is an obstacle that can be overcome.

Read my complete review here

3. Manchester by the Sea (R)

Manchester by the Sea might be more accurately titled We Don’t Need to Talk About This Now. This story is largely about grief, but it is an intensely relatable depiction of grief for me. The men in this film are like many I know, including the guy in my mirror. Conflict, pain, and feeling are easy to avoid until they’re not…until a bump on the head or swing of emotion forces everything out. Casey Affleck probably will earn best actor honors for his work here but he is supported by amazing efforts from newcomer Lucas Hedges and everyone’s favorite TV football coach Kyle Chandler not to mention brief but stellar moments with Michelle Williams. Manchester is a very authentic story…maybe too authentic. I wasn’t ready for a therapy session, but got to see many coping mechanisms I employ played out right in front of me. Don’t worry, though, we don’t have to talk about that now.

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2. Moonlight (R)

Even people in the best of circumstances can have a hard time establishing personal identity. Moonlight is very much about trying to figure out who you are in the worst of scenarios. Aside from everything I’ve written already about Moonlight, this is a beautifully directed, written, and acted film. It deserves acclaim at every level of filmmaking. Like others on this list it won’t be for everyone, but it is a story seldom given the light of day.

Read my complete review here

1. Hell or High Water (R)

Many of the movies on my list this year are about families. I was floored by the complexity and inner turmoil of Denzel Washington’s patriarch in Fences. I found great inspiration in the matriarch America needed in Jackie. I empathized right along with Kyle Chandler’s older brother character in Manchester by the Sea. My heart broke when Naomi Harris’s character in Moonlight forces her son to give her money for drugs. Still, one role hit me hardest this year, Ben Foster’s sloppy, unlovable Tanner in Hell or High Water.

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In this modern day western, we witness the history of this family slowly unfold. The film makes you root for Chris Pine’s scruffy-yet-attractive Toby all the while his brother Tanner drives you crazy. As the story progresses, you start to see that Tanner didn’t become that way overnight and as Toby is making sacrifices for his children, Tanner has given so much more to offer his family a chance in a world that was beating them down. Hell or High Water is funny, suspenseful, action-packed, and an emotional punch in the gut. A punch Tanner would probably take for you if you were family. Overall, we learned a lot from these diverse narratives this year. We learned to do anything for family, to keep space in our lives for others, to express our emotions in healthy ways, and to be prepared to name your favorite animal. Mine is the T-Rex.

What “Hamilton” and “Rogue One” have in common

There were no Skywalkers, no wookies, no Millennium Falcon but Rogue One was a great addition to the Star Wars Saga. The movie’s conception began with a line from the opening exposition of 1977’s A New Hope,

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

For the first time since this text initially crawled across the silver screen, we get to experience that story and I think I enjoyed it so much because I spent a large part of this year listening to Hamilton.

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A New Hope has never been my favorite Star Wars movie. Empire Strikes Back has always been the best, and nowadays I prefer the updated effects and filmmaking of The Force Awakens or the new stories in the animated Clone Wars or Rebels. Don’t get me wrong, I love episode four…I love the characters and the overall story but it has always felt more like a space adventure than it has a film about war and peace.

Watching the original trilogy over the years I always knew Luke, Han, and Leia would prevail, evil would lose, and at the end the Ewoks would throw a party that I’ve always wanted to be invited to. That is why I think I have never totally written off the prequels…their story is a tragedy and that is often more interesting than the feel-good original trilogy. The stakes of war have never been higher, though, then in Rogue One.

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This isn’t a movie about Seal Team 6, it’s about the soldiers that gave their lives before the glory was had. There are no blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm boys here. This is a movie about rebels, revolutionaries who are rough around the edges, riding the line between freedom fighter and terrorist. They’re more scruffy looking than any Star Wars character we’ve seen before and they aren’t chasing their destiny…they’re chasing freedom and basic human needs.  For decades, Luke Skywalker has walked around with a gold medal around his neck paid for with the blood of folks that must have thought it must be nice to have the force on your side.

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Luke, Han, and Leia all have one thing in common…they’re a little cocky. It is probably what has always put viewers at ease watching the original trilogy. We couldn’t imagine any of our main characters dying, because they couldn’t either. The characters in Rogue One don’t have the luxury of confidence. They are young, scrappy, and hungry and even knowing the chances of success are slim, the politicians aren’t behind them, and none of them are Jedis…they’re not throwing away their shot.

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Whereas the prequels were complex to a fault, Rogue One is complex in all the best ways. The weight of imperial control is heavier than it has ever been. The Death Star looms larger. The rebels struggle with giving up and some do. Even Darth Vader is scarier than he’s ever been. It’s more real. Our arts community has been living in the real-life story of Alexander Hamilton for more than a year now. Its highly relatable because it’s a human story that really happened. Rogue One felt more human, more complex. The characters are good guys until you get in the way of the rebellion. They are filled with contradictions, but so is independence.

The action of Rogue One also felt more grounded including a sequence that felt ripped from Black Hawk Down or The Kingdom. The movie felt familiar because we see these conflicts played out on the news every day. U.S. intervention in civil wars like what unfolded in Aleppo is made impossible to navigate because of the political and physical dangers. In the original trilogy, the rebel “alliance” could have just been a catchy name, but in this movie we get to see what that word means. It is a mix of governments, revolutionaries, terrorists, prisoners, and traitors.

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Hearing the dreams that Hamilton had of a free nation makes the American revolution more inspiring and relevant. Rogue One fills in some interesting gaps in the Star Wars Saga. Luke Skywalker’s victory in A New Hope means more because we have the names, the faces, and the acts that made it possible and they are normal people.

If I lost everything to the government, I would fight it. If I witnessed any of the horrors of imperial control, I’d be willing to defect. If I had spent my life dedicated to protecting and maintaining faith in the force, I would be willing to show what that faith looks like. The main character Jyn Erso says, “Rebellions are built on hope,” and there is truth to that, but if so, then they are held together by ordinary people. Rogue One asks us all to consider, if you had Darth Vader’s saber aimed at you, what would you stand for? What would you fall for?

We all look different in “Moonlight”

“Running around, fishing in a boat of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

What is the best setting to tell a scary story? I’m imagining that you visualize a dark, moonlit night with your friends surrounding a campfire. The low light of the fire casts deep, cavernous shadows around your eyes. Maybe to enhance the effect you’ll hold a flashlight just below your chin.

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Light has a funny way of influencing our perception. It’s interesting that often when we talk about our mistakes or successes we employ a metaphor of a positive or negative light being cast. Let me cast some light on the story of Moonlight, a terrific movie out now directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is about Chiron, a boy growing up in an impoverished project in Miami. His mother is an addict. His father is absent and his closest father figure is a local drug dealer. He also struggles with his sexuality. Take a minute and ask yourself where this story is going?

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Was it easy to write Chiron’s story for him? This is a light that we have seen shed before and Moonlight features many elements you might expect, but the beauty of the film lies in the unexpected, both for the audience as well as Chiron. The movie is divided into three acts providing snapshots of pivotal seasons in Chiron’s life that established his identity.

In each of the three acts, Chiron, who’s normal demeanor is stoic and silent, guarded against a world that has hurt him again and again, lets that guard down. He exposes himself to the love, support, and judgement of another. For fans of the Bible, this act is often translated to the sharpening of iron, right? We expose ourselves to have our rough edges smoothed out, to sharpen our character.

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This Biblical metaphor is intimidating to me for one reason, we are the iron. We all have the responsibility to sharpen and we are all vulnerable to the sharpening. My ability to sharpen comes with my bias, my emotions, and my selfish motivations that are part of being human. Which then begs the question, what bias, emotions, and motivations am I vulnerable to being sharpened by?

When you imagined how Chiron’s story would play out, what identity or narrative did you project on him? We often homogenize the people around us, fitting them into assimilated boxes of our cultural identity to fit roles that make us feel comfortable. Moonlight is, perhaps, equally about the dangers of forcing people’s identities into boxes as it is about the hope that comes when we are free to be defined by something that transcends stereotype.

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Chiron sits at the dinner table with Juan, his drug-dealing father figure. He asks him about a derogatory term he has heard which Juan explains is a word used to “make gay people feel bad.” Chiron then wonders if that term defines him. In this moment, Chiron is vulnerable to sharpening, wanting Juan, who has shown him compassion and love, to cast a light on him. Juan sets Chiron free by saying that he doesn’t need to have his whole identity figured out yet.

From there, Moonlight takes many turns you might not be prepared for…some expectedly tragic, some surprisingly uplifting, some powerfully universal. Fair warning this film will not be for everyone and an inspection of the film’s content rating will help frame your viewing. That said, the narrative of Chiron’s life features a complexity seldom seen in modern cinema. It is familiar, but unique. It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.

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None of the specific instances, good or bad, define Chiron’s whole life. Each act is distinct. There is great freedom and hope in that. This is a freedom I am given by Christ. There have been many moments in my life that shined a negative light on me…but that light hasn’t defined my whole identity. There have also been moments that cast a positive light, that have brought me love and respect. That isn’t the full story either.

What if you were always seen in the perfect light? What would that change about the way you define yourself and make decisions? This is the beauty of the Gospel. Jesus not only took the punishment for our worst moments, he gave us the reward for his best so that God will always look upon us under a perfect, loving light. A light that will never be overcome by darkness.

While you watch:

What moments in the film surprised you? Why do you think that is?

What would you have told a young Chiron at the dinner table if he was asking you the questions he asks Juan?

When in the film does Chiron let others to define him? What is the result?

The creation story inside “Moana”

I remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was in high school on our senior trip. I sat on the top deck of our ship, the trip was a low budget cruise, and stared into the horizon for hours. That moment staring into the endless ocean made my small town in Pennsylvania feel like a cage surrounded by bars of mountains and hills.

Often our imaginations are limited by how far we can see in front of us and, growing up, each of my horizons had an end. This wasn’t the case on the water. Witnessing the vastness of our world first hand opened my mind and with each passing year my worldview got bigger and broader. The ocean was calling.

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Disney’s new movie Moana begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” For Bible readers, this should be a familiar opening line. As with Moana, this is how our creation story begins. This is a great reminder that Christians aren’t the only culture that has a story of how the world began…but of interest is what is familiar and what is different about these stories.

In the writings of ancient cultures there are lots of stories about the world coming to be from the violent death of a beast or through a cataclysmic transformation of one piece of matter to the world as we know it. The world is formed from something. The outlier here is The Bible,

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty…” (ESV)

Or for those, like me, who like the Jesus Storybook Bible,

“In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And…nothing but nothing. But there was God. And God had a wonderful plan.”

The creation narrative in Moana begins with a goddess in the form of an island, Te Fiti, springing from the ocean to create all that is alive. In an attempt to capture the island goddess’s creative potential, her heart is stolen by the demi-god, Maui (my personal life coach, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Years later, this theft sets in motion an intersection of the personal journeys of Maui and Moana and, in doing so, models for us what it means to follow our calling and tap into our own creative potential.

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Maui’s mistaken assumption is that life comes from Te Fiti…but the truth is that Te Fiti’s power, her ability to create life, her creative potential comes from the ocean. Maui believes that he can earn this creative potential through godlike feats. The tale and music of Moana tell a different story.

“You may hear a voice inside

And if the voice starts to whisper

To follow the farthest star

Moana, that voice inside is

Who you are”

Moana’s parents have a plan for her life. She is tapped to be the next leader of her people, but Moana hears a different calling inside. Very quickly she realizes that in order for her culture and people to survive she must listen to that calling, not from her parents, but from the giver of life. Moana is about following your calling and realizing the same creative potential that the ocean placed in Te Fiti, resides in everyone. Similarly, The Bible continues from earlier,

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

God, our creator, made us to be creative. We have the responsibility to cultivate creation. This looks very different for different people and every day as I work with college students I see this first hand. Some of them were born to create lesson plans that will inspire young people, others have an innate ability to read accounting spread sheets, while someone else might have a compassion that compels them to heal others. This creative potential is given, not earned. When we answer the call of our creator to live into that potential the world flourishes.

This is the heart of our story as daughters and sons of God. We are called to enter every realm of this creation and bring the heart of Jesus with us to bless those around us. When we do our work with other motivations (looking at you, Maui) we often experience the exact opposite of flourishing, destruction.

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Moana’s ancestors were culture makers. The ocean called them off their island to explore the world and cultivate the vast creation. Her voyage throughout the film brings her to a place where she answers her call, understands her legacy as a culture maker, and comes to know that the journey of life is hard and she’ll need reminders of her purpose. The songs in the film seek to write this on her heart.

“I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide, always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way”

God may seem too big and too distant to have a relationship with us, but the story of scripture echoed in the story of Moana are telling us that God dwells inside us. When we look in the mirror we are staring at the image of God and that image is crying out, inviting you to cultivate God’s creation. God is calling…

While you watch:

What defines Moana’s identity? What defines Maui’s identity? What defines yours?

Is there a voice, a feeling inside you that you can’t shake? Is there something you feel down in your heart that you should…or shouldn’t be doing? What is preventing you from answering this call?

Are you aware of what God has created you for or leading you towards? How will you fulfill this? How will you use your passions and gifts to be a blessing to the world…to bring flourishing to creation?

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

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If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

Civil War Tony 1

In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

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Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

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Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

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I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

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It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why I’m #TeamCap

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

This stand-out line of dialogue heard in the early Captain America: Civil War trailers might be the most central exchange to the overall theme/lesson of Marvel’s newest chapter in their expansive cinematic universe. The title of the film implies conflict between friends on our well-established Avengers team. So I’m hoping that knowing Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America fight in this film doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but if so turn away now. Otherwise, keep reading as that is as spoilery as we’ll get.

Leading up to the film’s release, the studio asked fans to choose whether their allegiances rest with #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap. One of the accomplishments of Civil War, and there are many, is that leaving it, you probably won’t have a clear answer. Both sides were well explored and well represented in the film, and it made for some great conversation in the car ride back. Still, looking at the motivations of both our heroes…I went in as #TeamCap and left as #TeamCap. My reasons point back to that line of dialogue.

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The “he” in that line is Cap’s longtime friend and titular character in the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier a.k.a. Bucky Barnes. The Cap films have been building this relationship across all three of his solo stories and so it makes sense that it is central to this installment. A lot happens in this movie and the political and emotional circumstances that lead to all of the superhero sparring matches would take a lot of explanation, but for my money we will focus on the most important motivation for Cap…Bucky.

Basically, without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen the other Cap movies, what you need to know about Bucky is that he and Cap were BFF’s since day one. While on a mission something happened and Bucky was assumed dead only to reappear years later as The Winter Soldier, a Hydra (the baddies) sleeper agent/assassin who did a laundry list of Hydra’s evil biddings. He was experimented on, tormented, memory wiped, conditioned, and mind controlled to do these things and really hasn’t had a chance to deal with or heal from much of that. That is mostly what Captain America wants in Civil War, a fair shake and a second chance for Bucky. His main mission is to see that Bucky receives grace.

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Unfortunately for Cap and Bucky, this comes to a head during a very charged political climate in the superhero world and Iron Man is on the other side of the issue. Now, after years and years of friendship and fighting side-by-side, the ideological differences between Iron Man and Cap are revealed for the whole world to see.

This is largely what Civil War is about…this conflict, but it is also a conflict that arises after years of being on the mission field. Lots of things can happen when you’re on a mission. You win battles, you lose battles, you learn more about yourself, you learn how to focus your work, and relationships come and go. This is not a foreign concept to our Biblical story.

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Seeing Cap and Tony waxing politics, beliefs, and strategies reminded me of a brief but significant moment in the ministry of Paul. Barnabas and Paul were a missionary team that saw their fair share of battles on the mission field. These battles were dangerous. These battles left scars (Acts 14:19). Throughout their journeys, though, we see Paul coming into a better and better understanding of the calling on his life to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His specific mission gains focus and his strategies begin to form around that focus. Then in just a few, somewhat vague lines of scripture, we see that Barnabas doesn’t share the same vision. They disagree and they part ways (Acts 15:36-39).

When I read through Acts and Paul’s follow-up letters to the places where he started churches, what stands out is Paul’s deep love for the Gentiles. What an amazing testimony to the Gentiles to have a man that objected so loudly and violently against them being included in the Body of Christ be the one called by God to tell them that the story of Jesus is for them. Paul became so focused on his calling it became more important than his own health and safety (Acts 16:16-40) and it also took priority over his partnership with Barnabas. Paul cared so greatly that this message of grace got to the Gentiles he was willing to fight for his strategy.

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In Civil War, Cap risked losing friends, imprisonment, and death in order to protect Bucky so that one day he may experience the grace he so needed after his time as Hydra’s puppet. Being Bucky’s advocate was a dangerous position as was Paul’s being the advocate for the Gentiles. God has placed us all on our own personal mission fields surrounded by people that need grace, by people that need to be advocated for.

Civil War doesn’t have a very fun, clear cut conclusion. The battle is messy and it left a lot of physical and emotional scars. It was dangerous and scary. For Cap, though, Bucky was worth it because he is his friend, because he got a raw deal, and, perhaps, because he represents all of us. We all need second chances. We all need the freedom that comes from the gospel of our gracious God. If Bucky can’t receive that freedom what hope do we have? Is there someone in your life whose grace is worth fighting for?

Now Iron Man…that is a different story, a story about guilt, shame, and fear. Maybe I’ll have to write about that story too? To be continued…

Heather’s Top 10 Films of 2015

In compiling my list I observed that this year I have most gravitated to films that generated creative and original content. My priorities were an interesting composition and a message that contributes to the cultural conversation in helpful and provocative ways.

1. The Big ShortThis is my #1 pick because I think it is the most creative film of the year and unpacks a complex topic in an extremely engaging way. I loved the characters and I went with them on the emotional rollercoaster that was the financial boom and crisis. The device of using pop culture icons to explain the most confusing elements was a brilliant way to raise a mirror up to American culture and reveal what holds our attention most often.

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2. Creed – A close contender for #1, beautifully written, acted, and directed. Coogler expertly paid homage to the original Rocky while taking the franchise in a fresh direction that was poignant and inspiring. I particularly appreciated the way women were portrayed in the film which was respectful and honoring.

3. Spotlight – Well made, terrific performances, handled a very difficult topic with sensitivity as well as scrutiny. It made me thankful for Pope Francis and the rebuilding of shattered communities.

The Walk

4. The Walk – I LOVE this story, and the film comes at a time when our iconic public spaces are marked by more fear than enjoyment. Philippe Petit in his zany French artistry invites us to reimagine our monuments and common life to see beauty and whimsy that is unfettered by fear. Visually stunning, historically accurate, we “dance at the top of the world” together.

5. The End of the Tour – Both Segel and Eisenberg deliver vulnerable and unaffected performances. They help us explore the person of David Foster Wallace but also our fears of rejection and inauthenticity, and questions of what it means to create and connect in the 21st century.

6. Inside Out – Wonderfully inventive and insightful, Pixar gives us some great original content to help children and adults navigate the complexities of our world. And Bing-Bong made me cry.

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7. The Visit – I’m a little biased because I love M. Night Shyamalan and I’m always rooting for him to succeed. In this film I think he’s returning to what he does best: using suspense and horror to reveal our deeper fears and unsympathetic hearts. The Visit taps into childhood fears as well as our societal anxieties over growing old and of the elderly as reminders of our eventual deterioration. (Disclaimer: this film contains several scenes of suspense and multiple scenes of violence.)

8. Steve Jobs – Using creative plot devices to explore Jobs’ relationship to the things he has made, we eavesdrop on 3 pivotal moments in his life. With Steve we explore identity and how we are shaped by what we do.

9. Straight Outta Compton – The strength of this film is the story itself. NWA brought the conversation of race in America to the cultural mainstream in a way that is still relevant. It’s not the best made film of the year and contains some degrading treatment of women, but the success of the movie reveals a nerve that we need to continue engaging.

Brooklyn

10. Brooklyn – While it’s not a particularly original story, it’s beautifully acted and comes at a time when America and the world are struggling to make decisions about immigrants and their place in our societies. Brooklyn aroused empathy for how difficult it is to leave everything you’ve known behind and become a stranger in a strange land. Timely and important for us to consider America’s immigrant history and what it looks like today.

Honorable Mentions

What We do in the Shadows – A little bloody, but overall hysterical and perfectly acted in the mock-umentary style

Me Earl and the Dying Girl – Thoughtful, funny, a heartfelt look at youth and mortality. Filmed in Pittsburgh, so it must be good!

Tomorrowland – In the fear and doom over climate change, a call for optimism to focus on solutions rather than problems.

See Ivan’s Top 10 list, we chose only 5 of the same films

Our Top Tens 2015

What if we’re supposed to hate the prequels?

It is Star Wars week, as in the week that Episode VII: The Force Awakens is hitting theaters and has already been destroying presale records…destroying them like they came with a tiny port that could succumb to a couple of well aimed proton torpedoes. Not only that, but all of the coolest online sources are featuring special Star Wars articles and videos to add cars to the hype train. And with new Star Wars excitement comes fresh fear that the new one will be on par with the dreaded prequels. We know that fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate…fresh hate for the prequels.

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What does hate lead to though? It only leads to suffering so I offer a deep, overly thought-out search for the silver lining of George Lucas’s long-time loathed, CGI extravaganza. I will offer a defense for some of Lucas’s most questioned creative choices as I attempt to step into his mind. I won’t be going into the casting of actors or dialogue or Lucas’s decision to do everything in CG. Though, I do think he gets too much heat for most of that, especially the CG. If Episode I was made the same year as Avatar they would look nearly identical. Mostly, however, I’ll be asking a lot of whys and what ifs about the story. When thinking about the prequels the most important what if might be…what if we were supposed to hate the prequels?

Where do we begin? How about the OG trilogy! What do we know about the state of the galaxy both before and during the original episodes? We know that there was once a great peace-keeping entity in the galaxy known as the Jedi. The Jedi were the most powerful weapon in the entire universe. With their mastery of the light side of the force along with their commitment to a simple, unified life, they were the perfect guard against evil of any kind. Then something happened and we are left with only Obi-Wan and Yoda.

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Knowing that, what is the prequel trilogy really about? The most exciting promise of the prequels for many was that we would go on the journey of Anakin Skywalker transforming into Darth Vader, but I will argue that this is just a symptom of a larger narrative unfolding in the galaxy. The prequels are largely and mostly about the fall of the Jedi. Not just Luke Skywalker, but the Jedi as a whole are the “new hope.” The finale of the entire original trilogy is a “return of the Jedi.” So it makes sense that the mighty Jedi’s fall would be the main task the prequels had to accomplish.

Therefore another question to ask leaving the prequels is did George Lucas accomplish this? I argue yes, and how he did it not only makes sense but appropriately should leave you hating the movies themselves because of the story they tell. Why did the Jedi fall? In the films, the events that surround it may seem complicated, but I believe they boil down to three main points.

The Jedi Became Arrogant

The Sith could have struck anytime. The master plan of the eventual Emperor didn’t start with the birth of Anakin Skywalker. The Sith weren’t waiting for the-kid-that-would-be-Vader to come into the scene before they struck. They had pieces moving for decades. So what made the time of the prequels the perfect time for the Sith to make themselves known?

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Imagine being the Jedi, the greatest force the galaxy knows. You are loved by everyone that loves good. Your bodies and minds are beacons of the strongest power in the galaxy which means no problem is insurmountable. Spend hundreds and hundreds of years in that role and you are bound to fall asleep a little bit, right? The prequels are filled with references to the Jedi’s vision being clouded and slowly throughout the story we find out times when elaborate things were happening right under their nose.

We see the Jedi’s arrogance in little ways. Episode I begins with them sending obvious Jedi into a situation that would only become exacerbated by Jedi being involved. Why weren’t they stealthier? Qui-Gon is perhaps the personification of this brash arrogance. We see it in his inability to listen to the Jedi council about not training Anakin and we see it in the saber battle that leads to his tragic death. He and Obi-Wan were barely handling Maul together, why did he rush in to fight him alone? The events of Episode I are a shot in the mouth of the Jedi and they spend the rest of the prequels a step behind which leaves them vulnerable.

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The Jedi Were Vulnerable to Bureaucracy

If you are the leader of the Sith, knowing that you’re out numbered and out powered by the mighty Jedi, how do you go about bringing them down? There is no way to match them in a physical battle. The only way is to Olivia Pope them! You make the galaxy stop trusting them. And when the galaxy stops trusting their galactic police, chaos ensues. With the wisdom and power of the Jedi in question after Episode I the senate and therefore the galaxy turn to a political leader and a vast clone army.

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This is probably the most relatable and infuriating part of the prequels. Rightfully so, just like here in America, the galaxy had checks and balances to ensure that power isn’t abused. The Jedi probably humbly set this form of galactic government into motion. Then they were arrogant and made a mistake forcing them to be held in check. Yoda alludes to them being deceived and perhaps needing to take a step back. And then the Sith played the political machine like a fiddle because sometimes that machine is driven by idiots.

Bureaucracy is Often Run by Idiots

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Jar Jar Binks. No entity in Star Wars lore boils the blood more than this childish buffoon. But what if the prequels are also about learning to hate Jar Jar because he represents the most realistic aspect of government? When everything goes down, it is Jar Jar that has gained the trust of Padme and others. In a time of great suffering, the senate should have been able to cling to the Jedi, but now they were clinging for the government to save them. This leads to Jar Jar having real, political influence.

The prequels are about the fall of the Jedi and they are also about the rise of an oppressive government. The Jedi are personifications of wisdom, truth, and goodness and the government, personified by Jar Jar and used by the Sith becomes a metaphor for evil, injustice, and lies. Perhaps what is so maddening about the prequels isn’t the movies themselves but the story they tell…a story that is real to our lives, a bad story, a story that is meant to make us hate injustice, a story that is to warn us about getting complacent and arrogant like the Jedi, a story that prepares us for political leaders that will make bad decisions. Ultimately, we are supposed to hate the prequels, the story of the fall of the Jedi, so that when the Jedi finally return we can be filled with uninhibited joy.