Jesus Goes to the Movies: An Interview with Joel Mayward

Posted: August 11, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized

51n20MXJmxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_A large part of our goal here at Reel Thinking is to help Christians think critically about the movies they watch, and part of reaching this goal means that we like to draw your attention to helpful books and resources. To that end , I present the following interview with Joel Mayward about his new book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide.

• Your new book is called Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide. Tell us a little more about the book and what you set out to accomplish in it.

Joel Mayward: Jesus Goes to the Movies is the result of my intersecting passions for ministry, theology, and film. I wanted to create a resource to pastors, parents, youth workers, and young people that would be both accessible and theological, helping them think deeper about both movies and Jesus. Part One of the book is a theological guide for movie-watching, with chapters on how to thinking theologically about movies, understanding worldviews, and a brief history of the relationship between the church and Hollywood. Part Two offers 50 film discussion guides for using in a small group setting.

• Why is it important for youth to engage with films on a deeper level? 

Joel Mayward: I think films and filmmakers are the primary stories and story-tellers of our era, and this generation of young people are inundated with a plethora of on-screen ideas. Learning how to have discernment, to think critically, and to engage with art and entertainment in ways that are healthy and wise are necessary disciplines for everyone, but particularly for teens and young adults. I’m convinced how we approach art and film is a significant part of our discipleship process, and our habits in both movie-watching and Jesus-following often mirror each other. In this book, I’m more interested in teaching young people how to think about movies and their faith, not just what movies Christians should watch or avoid.

• The subtitle of your book is, The Youth Ministry Film Guide. How do you envision your book being used outside of youth ministry circles?  

Joel Mayward: Even though youth workers are the book’s primary audience, I think anyone who is interested in movies and Christian spirituality will find it to be a helpful and engaging resource. It’s accessible, funny, and thought-provoking. If you’re a parent, a teen, a college student, a pastor, or if you just like movies, this book is for you!

• How did you decide which movies to analyze in your book? 

Joel Mayward: Great question! I wanted to address the films young people were already watching, as well as point them to films they should be watching, offering spiritual ideas and theological questions to both popular and less-seen films. I believe there are over 250 movies listed in the book’s index, ranging from 1920s silent films to the latest Mad Max movie, and all sorts of genres—action, comedy, horror, drama, romance, sci-fi, and (of course) teen movies. The discussion guides range from Pixar films to The Hunger Games to Babette’s Feast to The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

• How can someone get a copy of your book and find your other work?

Joel Mayward: You can find Jesus Goes to the Movies on Amazon.com or through the publisher, The Youth Cartel. I just started a new website for my film reviews and writings, Cinemayward.com, and you can follow me on Twitter: @JoelMayward or @Cinemayward.

photo 3I recently wrote an article for Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Today, the article is out from behind its paywall, and you can read it for FREE over at the site. Here is an excerpt:

Week after week in the summertime, hordes of people crowd into their local movie theaters to catch the latest blockbuster. Families gather in the living room to escape the blistering heat and watch their favorite movie. In the cold winter months, holiday films and Oscar contenders stand in the spotlight. Indeed, the year-round frequency with which the consuming of fictive narrative films occurs marks it as an important and powerful ritual—not some banal or insignificant activity to merely pass the time or escape from the world around us; for film is a remarkably influential medium. It is admittedly easy to lose sight of this fact in the midst of our movie watching, in which it can become customary for Christians to think of films exclusively as prepackaged objects that contain redemptive themes for us to mine out and discover.

Head on over and check it it out!

MV5BMTQzMjM2NjM1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDM1MjQyNTE@._V1__SX1394_SY669_In the midst of the (well-earned) hubbub about Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the buzz surrounding not-so-Fantastic Four, comes The Gift, a sly little film with an unassuming title that just so happens to be one of the best mystery/suspense pictures released in the past few years. It forsakes the sexiness of Gone Girl and The Guest in favor of something much more terrifying: realism. Moreover, The Gift displays a level of cinematic self-awareness and maturity that, though commendable in and of its own right, is especially remarkable given that it marks the directorial debut of Joel Edgerton (who also wrote the screenplay and stars in the film). At its core, the film is a marital drama obsessed with sins of the past.

Simon (Jason Bateman ) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) seem like your average couple. They buy a new house, move in, and plan to start a family. One day, while making a run to a homeware store, Simon meets Gordo (Edgerton), a long-lost high school acquaintance. But the problem is that Gordo seems a little obsessed with Simon and Robyn; creepiness ensues, and the veil is lifted on the couple’s ostensibly happy marriage.

The truly delightful thing about The Gift is that it takes a highly subversive turn just as it heads for rote stalker film territory. Edgerton’s camerawork reinforces the narrative turn: he is not afraid to use jump-scares (there are some good ones) and then, a scene later, make you squirm in your seat as his camera lingers too long. In short, adrenaline junkies will have their fill.

Perhaps as much as anything else, however, The Gift is an insightful meditation on the long-term consequences of sin and wrongdoing. “The sins of the past will become your present,” the trailer says. Alas, however, is not possible to discuss this thematic consideration in much detail without spoiling, so suffice it to say that the words of the Psalmist—which I leave here as enticement—figure prominently in the film:

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out,and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends. (Psalm 7:14–16)

MV5BMjM2NTQ5Mzc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcxMDI2NTE@._V1__SX1394_SY669_Hot off the heels of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel is back with its second release of the year in Ant-Man. As the film’s title intimates, Ant-Man is essentially Marvel’s attempt to do a smaller film before ratcheting things back up in Captain America: Civil War. Of course, using the words Marvel and small in the same sentence is somewhat of an oxymoron—especially given its $130 million-dollar budget and Avengers-coattail-riding ad campaign (not to mention the tumultuous, widely-publicized departure of writer/director Edgar Wright). In a way, then, the publicity and buzz surrounding Ant-Man is emblematic of the irony of its seemingly contradictory aim: to embody magnitude and smallness in simultaneity. In this respect, Ant-Man speaks to the human condition in a unique way.

Striving for Smallness

Any film about a man who possesses a suit that shrinks him into the size of an ant will necessarily be smaller-scale in the obvious, thematic sense; and Marvel is keen to keep you from forgetting the fact, with numerous not-so-subtle references to the titular tiny insects scattered throughout the film. Moreover, the film’s tagline, “heroes don’t get any bigger” is there to remind you if all else fails. While Ant-Man is much more on the nose than most Marvel films, there are some genuinely impressive moments that epitomize its desire to be the smallest superhero movie ever. One of these moments takes place as an ant-sized Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) battles with his equally tiny nemesis Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) atop a Thomas The Train set. The action is filmed so that it is ostensibly as grand, epic, and world-changing as any corresponding scene in the Marvel canon, but this convention is then comedically turned on its head as a wide-angle shot shows the train set in the context of a child’s bedroom. Another, similar scene occurs as a miniature Scott Lang runs through a model-sized town while being fired upon by his life-sized enemies—the resulting effect of which smartly mimics the disaster porn sequence that is standard fare in virtually every summer blockbuster. In short, there aren’t many multi-million dollar movies that work so hard at being very, very small.

EffectinMV5BMjIxMTYwOTk0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjE2MDY5NTE@._V1__SX1394_SY669_g Enormity

In spite of its attempts to embrace the scope and scale of its namesake, Ant-Man is an undeniably large film that wants to be seen as such. The ad campaign made that much clear when they released a series of posters that boasted of Ant-Man’s tremendous power. He doesn’t need a hammer or shield to be as cool as the kids down the block, they said. And then there’s the film itself, which goes (way) out of its way to pit Ant-Man against an Avenger, with the former emerging victorious. In other words, Ant-Man spends too much time trying to fit into the MCU (Marvel cinematic universe) and not enough being true to itself. It is one thing to formally experiment with the themes of scope and scale (see the examples from the previous section), but it is another thing entirely to continually prod the audience and tell them how awesome and epic your protagonist is and how he is totally on-par with the Hulk.

Going to the Ant

While it is easy to attribute Ant-Man’s size problem to the departure of Edgar Wright, the awkward tension actually is quite indicative of the human condition. In a very real sense, we like to feel small. We go to the Grand Canyon, gaze at the stars, watch Planet Earth, and ride rollercoasters because we are imbued by God with a sense of our smallness, our insignificance. We all bear the imago that tells us we are small for a reason. Conversely, Ant-Man shows that our desire to feel small has limits. The sublimity that often accompanies our attempts to confront our smallness is acceptable only insofar as we can control it. Marvel’s dilemma—that they want to make a movie about being small while simultaneously controlling how and when we feel ant-like—is, therefore, our dilemma. In other words, we want to visit the Grand Canyon to see that we are tiny, but we do not want to be lost at sea in order to attain to that same end. The problem for us (and for Marvel) is that we can’t have it both ways. We are tiny … but the Lord is sovereign.

JWWhen I was 13-years-old I took a trip to the beach with my family. As any teenager headed for the beach, I was looking forward to a week of playing in the ocean. On one particular rainy day, however, my family was forced to come up with a ‘plan B’. That plan? Visit the local Cineplex.

Little did I know that this visit to the theater would be unlike any other. We went to see Jurassic Park – a film I knew almost nothing about and didn’t remember viewing a trailer prior to my entrance into this dark theater. As the images began to display on the silver screen and I was transported to Isla Nublar, I lost most consciousness of my being present in a movie theater. Rather, I bought into the notion that I was running for my life from raptors and a hungry T-Rex. I laughed. I screamed. I saw it again…and again.

Fast-forward to 2015 and not much has changed. Even though the visitors of Jurassic World have turned out for a new attraction, raptors and a T-Rex are still headlining this motion picture event. Just as Claire [Bryce Dallas Howard] states that attendance spikes with the release of a new attraction, little did the screenwriters know how true this would be of the newest installment in the franchise.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park [1997] and Jurassic Park III [2001] were colossal disappointments to the fans of this franchise, as well as critics, but the release of Jurassic World has showed us that no one was ready to leave this story. JW has absolutely shredded box-office numbers. It had the largest opening weekend of any movie ever, had the largest follow-up weekend, and reached the $450 million mark faster than any other film. The Avengers: Age of Ultron reached $450 million in 54 days, while JW reached it in 15 days…wow.[1]

While I thoroughly enjoyed this film and think it is an almost perfect summer movie, I think it’s interesting to ponder this movie in our larger cultural context. Again, no movie has accomplished what JW has. Week-after-week it continues to gross large amounts of money and remains number one at the box-office, but why? Is it because people love dinosaurs? Probably. Is it possibly because people have more time to visit the theater in the summer? I’m sure. However, could it be that in the midst of our gender-confusing, marriage-redefining culture, America still has an audience that longs for male leadership? I think so.

One of the aspects I appreciated about JW, was that it wasn’t afraid to have a leading man. Currently, filmmakers seem to unswervingly pursue strong female leads – The Hunger Games and Divergent series, are some recent examples. While I am completely fine with strong females leads, as is God, (see Esther and Abigail as a couple of examples), I was ready to see a film that wasn’t afraid to have a man as a strong leader. I was ready to see that man portrayed as a character that was right. I was longing to see a man that wasn’t made to look like a fool for the majority of the film. I was ready for Owen [Chris Pratt].

Unless you’ve been lost at sea, you’re unfamiliar with the now-household-name Chris Pratt. Even Colin Trevorrow (Director) and Steven Spielberg (Creator/Producer of Every Movie) state that they got a little lucky in the casting of Pratt. In fact, they actually cast him prior to the release of the uber-hit, Guardians of the Galaxy. In an interview, Spielberg jests that they both looked very smart for casting Pratt, even though they – as well as America – had no clue how big Pratt would become.

I’m not exactly sure what it is, but there’s a certain likability to Pratt. Even though each character he portrays carries with it that indefinable likability, he also carries a nuance that makes each character unique. Owen makes you laugh, but he also brings a seriousness to scenes which displays he’s no one-trick pony.

As we meet him in JW, it’s obvious he can train dinosaurs, is willing to take risks to save others, likes motorcycles, and has some romantic history with Claire. Even though Claire is a strong woman, his leadership doesn’t falter under her authoritative tone. As he states, he appreciates her need to make tough decisions, but doesn’t relinquish his place of authority when it comes to being a dino-expert.

Owen proves to be a constant “everyman” throughout JW. He was right about the dangers of genetically-engineering dinosaurs. He was right that setting up play-dates with the indominus rex was, “Probably not a good idea.” He was right that going after said dinosaur with non-lethal weapons would result in death. Even when he’s being attacked by a hybrid-pterodactyl and Claire must come to his rescue, he doesn’t relinquish the lead. Owen is the leader. He’s the protector. He’s bravery encompassed. In short, he’s the hero.

In fact, he’s too strong – at least that’s what some in our culture are claiming. You see, some movie-goers may be okay with a strong male lead, just as long as the female is just as strong, or stronger. But, they are not okay with a solely strong leading man. Don’t believe me? Check out some of the blogs of feminists that are destroying JW. Quite simply, they hate it!

Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I think JW can serve as – somewhat – of an accurate barometer for our culture. Genders are being called into question; the creation ordinance of marriage has been redefined; but humans still long for a prince in the midst of chaos. There’s something refreshing about a man entering into a broken creation and fighting to protect those under his care. Whether it’s the chaos of humans re-engineering dinosaurs, humans attempting to redefine marriage, or humans objecting to God’s rules laid out in the garden, we long for a prince to come and make all things new.

Or, maybe I just like dinosaurs…


[1] All these stats are according to boxofficemojo.com. JW currently rests at approx. $514 million after a $54 million dollar weekend and third consecutive week at #1 beating new-comers, Inside Out and Ted 2.

TOMORROWLAND Podcast

Posted: June 10, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized

MV5BMTQ4OTgzNTkwNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzI3MDE3NDE@._V1__SX1391_SY669_The folks at Reel World Theology were kind enough (or crazy enough) to have me back on another episode. This time, we talked Tomorrowland. It was a fun and edifying conversation, and you can check it out by clicking here.

Trailer Tuesday

Posted: June 9, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Trailer Tuesday

In keeping with the Jurassic Park theme this week, I’ve got two trailers for you today. One is a throwback, and the other is hot off the press!

 

MV5BMjM2MDgxMDg0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM2OTM5NDE@._V1__SX1391_SY669_There are a number of reasons as to why Jurassic Park is a modern classic; and since Jurassic World releases later this week, I figure it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the the movie that started it all. So, I’m going to briefly highlight one way in which I think Jurassic Park succeeded, and then relate that to one of my fears about Jurassic World.

One reason that Jurassic Park has enjoyed (and will likely continue to enjoy) such tremendous staying power over the years is that it is fundamentally more than a dinosaur thriller. Hear me out: dinosaurs eat, escape, smash, and scare in Jurassic Park, which is but another way of saying that it is not less than a dino-thriller. But at its heart, Jurassic Park is a character-centered and character-driven film.

It is character-centered insofar as it fundamentally tells a story in which characters undergo change. Dr. Grant (Sam Neill), who is first introduced to us as a curmudgeonly, kid-averse paleontologist, learns that children are people too. Dr. Sattler (Laura Dern) discovers a newfound respect for the power of nature. Richard Hammond (David Attenborough) finds out that he just might have been a little wrong about being able to control an island of dinosaurs, and Dr. Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) learns that you don’t run from the T-Rex.

Moreover, Jurassic Park is a character-driven film in that the vast majority of the dino-action that takes place is focalized through a main character. In other words, the dinosaur-y bits in Jurassic Park work—evoking fear, wonder, amazement, and terror—precisely because they place the audience in those situations with the main characters. Consider, for instance, the encounter with the Brachiosaurus early in the film. Spielberg’s camera stays on Dr. Grant in a closeup, as he marvels at the off-screen creature. This same slack-jawed look is passed from person-to-person, the camera lingering on their gaze, refusing to show us what we want to see. Then, as John William’s iconic score swells, Spielberg cuts, and the dinosaur looms large in front of us. It is an amazing scene, and I posit that it has maintained its staying power because it is rooted in Dr. Grant’s reaction. The special effects are nice (and were groundbreaking at the time), but ultimately it is the audience’s identification with a man who has devoted his whole life to digging up the fossils of these creatures that imbues this moment with such cinematic magic.MV5BMTk1MTIwNDY1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTg4OTI3OA@@._V1__SX1391_SY669_

Through this character-centered and driven action Jurassic Park avoids one of the most common pitfalls of modern action movies, namely meaningless and ungrounded mayhem. Everyone (apparently) thinks mass destruction in movies is, like, totally cool; but when said entropy is not situated in a concern for characters, it becomes little more than eye-candy and thus loses its power to stay with us long after we leave the theater. My initial fear is that Jurassic World will fall prey to this trap. However, I remain hopeful that Colin Trevorrow will follow in Spielberg’s footsteps by giving us some characters that make it worth a trip to the park.

Mad Max: Fury Road PODCAST

Posted: June 3, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized

mm000I recently had the opportunity join in with the crew over at Reel World Theology as a guest on their weekly podcast. We talked Mad Max: Fury Road, and it was a blast. Click here to listen, and go ahead and subscribe to their podcast while you’re at it.

Check out this new trailer, hot off the press!

Video  —  Posted: June 2, 2015 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized