Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Bug's Life (1998)

     Yes, today we’re looking at another classic Pixar film. Over my spring break a couple weeks ago, I watched “A Bug’s Life” for the first time in years. And dang, this movie is pretty dark. I remember seeing it in the theater when I was a kid, but I never realized until recently how dark the story really is! But I also noticed a connection to a famous story in the Bible that I feel led to talk about today.

     Dave Foley is the voice of Flik, an ant living in the colony run by Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Drefyus), who is still nervously learning the rules of being queen from her mother (Phyllis Diller). Their colony of ants has the duty of collecting food not only for themselves, but also for a colony of grasshoppers that has apparently taken control of them at some point in history. And one day, Flik, an ant that tries to help but often makes mistakes, accidentally misuses one of his many crackpot inventions to help gather food, and he ends up destroying the pile of food for the grasshoppers. Once the grasshoppers come and find their food gone, their leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey) tells them to use the next season that they would normally just use to gather food for themselves to get more food for the grasshoppers.

     Hopefully that makes sense. If it doesn’t, watch the movie. Anyway, Flik suggests leaving the ant island to find bigger bugs to resist the grasshoppers. Eager to get rid of him, Atta sends Flik on his way. And in a comical series of events, Flik comes across a group of bugs that have just been fired from the circus, including walking stick Slim (David Hyde Pierce), fat caterpillar Heimlich (the late great Joe Ranft), and male ladybug Francis (Denis Leary), and Flik mistakes them all for strong warrior bugs. Why? Because they’ve just been running away from—er, fighting against a pack of bugs that were chasing after Francis at the circus. It’s funny. Trust me.

     And after MORE complicated events (seriously, watch it), the ants and the circus bugs decide to build a bird out of sticks, stones, and leaves to scare away paranoid Hopper and his gang. But at one point after they launch the bird and start scaring the grasshoppers off, the bird crashes, and Hopper angrily shouts at the ants that have gathered in fear once again:

HOPPER: You are mindless, soil-sucking losers, put on this earth to serve us!

FLIK: You’re wrong, Hopper. I’ve seen these ants do great things. And year after year, they somehow manager to pick food for themselves AND you! So who’s the weaker species? Ants don’t serve grasshoppers! It’s YOU who need US! We’re a lot stronger than you say we are. And you know it… don’t you?

     Gee! This situation sounds familiar. A dictator of sorts enslaves what he believes to be a weaker race because he’s afraid of them. How about… Exodus 1:8-10? “Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look’, he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.’” And thus, a Pharaoh takes control of the Israelites in Egypt and prepares a nation for Moses centuries later. I think from this passage alone, we can assume that this Pharaoh was a little paranoid. And so was Hopper! Listen to what he had told his gang right before they go back to get their food at the end of the season:

HOPPER: Those puny, little ants outnumber us a hundred to one—and if they ever figure that out, there goes our way of life! It’s not about food; it’s about keeping those ants in line.

     But when they return, Flik bravely stands up to the grasshoppers once more—this time joined by the rest of his colony and the circus bugs. The grasshoppers are chased away, and a bird (a REAL one) feeds Hopper to her chicks. The ants have found their freedom from the oppression of the grasshoppers, as did the Israelites as Moses led them out of Egypt.

     However, the whole comparison of the ants to the Israelites isn’t the sole comparison to be made between this film and the book of Exodus. Moses believed himself to be a very poor choice for the one to bring the Israelites out of Egypt—he tells God as He is speaking to him through the burning bush, “‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (4:10) However, God used Moses’ life to put him in the perfect position to be the chosen leader! By allowing him as a baby to be placed into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, God brought Moses up in the highest place possible. He had access to a great education, wealth, high status, anything he wanted! God used a humble, quiet man to be the one that Pharaoh would eventually believe to bring the Israelites out of oppression.

     Flik is the same way. Flik is an inventive and well-meaning ant, even though he is often clumsy and misunderstood. But he ends up being the one to save the ants from the grasshoppers. He, the lowest in his colony, turned out to be the one to save his colony in the end. In this way, God can use whomever he wants to do His will. He told Moses in Exodus 4:11-12, “‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf and mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will allow God to use you in whatever way he chooses—and whatever condition he finds you in—to complete His will in your life and the lives of others.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Casablanca (1942)

     Once upon a time, I was a freshman in high school, and I had this crush on this one girl for a very long time. One day, I found out that she had started dating another guy. As you can imagine, I was heartbroken. Within the following months, however, I came to rededicate my life to Jesus at a youth conference, which was the turning point for me in my spiritual pain and in the pain that I had been going through. But during those few months is when I saw “Casablanca” for the first time. And even though it doesn’t have the same healing power that Jesus had, it did serve as a reminder for me that sometimes, the best love stories aren’t always the ones when the guy gets the girl.

     If you’ve never heard of Humphrey Bogart, look him up now. He was sort of like the Brad Pitt of the 1930-40’s Golden Age of Hollywood… except Bogart was a way better actor, no offense. Bogart plays Rick Blaine, an American bartender in Casablanca, a city in unoccupied French Morocco during World War Two. Blaine has a history of patriotism, and when the Germans invaded France (where he was living at the time), he had to escape. But when he did, he was never the same. Now, he is a pessimistic, cynical bartender who sticks his neck out for nobody. Literally, he says that. “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Why? No one knows. Rick keeps to himself maybe a little too much.

     But one night, as a friend leaves him letters of transit that have already been signed by officials and can take him out of Casablanca whenever he pleases, in walk Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Victor is a leader for Free France, who has been chased after by the Nazis and even put in concentration camps for his anti-Nazi propaganda. Rick has been warned that he is coming to Casablanca by a local officer, Captain Renault (Claude Reins), and that Rick should do nothing to help Laszlo escape. Ilsa, on the other hand, already knows Rick: while Laszlo was in the concentration camp, Ilsa, after finding out Victor was dead, brought her grief with her to Paris… and then, one day, she met Rick. The two fell in love and planned to leave Paris together, until one day, Ilsa gets word that Victor is alive but not well, and she must go back to him. So she regretfully leaves Rick, who is heartbroken as he takes a train out of Paris alone in the rain, crumbling up a note from Ilsa that vaguely tells him that she can never see him again.

     By the way, I should probably mention this now. “Casablanca” has the greatest script ever written in history. And I mean that. So you really should watch this film.

     Anyway, it takes a while for Ilsa to convince Rick of why she left him, and now that Rick has the letters of transit, he can give them to Victor and Ilsa and send them off to America safely, without the Nazis chasing after them any longer. And it’s too complicated of a plot to explain here, but Rick finally agrees. He takes his letters of transit, signs them “Mr. and Mrs. Victor Laszlo”, and sends them on their way. But Ilsa is confused: why would Rick do this? If he really loves her, wouldn’t he just leave with her? But Rick explains to her his reasoning:

RICK: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. And if that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.

ILSA: But what about us?

RICK: We’ll always have Paris.

ILSA: And I said I would never leave you!

RICK: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow; what I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

     And as he tells her the classic line, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” Victor and Ilsa get on the plane to America, as Ilsa tells Rick, “God bless you.”

     “Casablanca” holds the concept of sacrifice that Jesus is constantly pushing us towards, and it’s a concept that I’ve already covered in some of the other articles I’ve written. One of the greatest examples of this is Matthew 12, where Jesus is sending out his twelve disciples to go into the surrounding cities and preach the Gospel to other Jews. He tells them that accepting Jesus as the Savior of the world does not just mean you pray one little prayer and everything will be fine. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he says in verse 34. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He goes on to tell them, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (37-39)

     Rick Blaine understands that his love for Ilsa may be beneficial for him, but the rest of the world needs Victor Laszlo in America. So he puts aside his old life, his old longing for Ilsa, and he finds a new life as he helps Victor and Ilsa leave Casablanca. My prayer for you, the reader, is that if you are struggling with sacrificing a desire, a hope for the future, a relationship, or anything currently in your life, that you would find strength through Jesus Christ to lay it down before Him.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Quiet Man (1952)

     Happy (early) St. Patrick’s Day, everybody! To celebrate in my own little way, let me introduce you to a filmmaker named John Ford. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. He’s a pioneer of filmmaking. If John Ford hadn’t made films like “Stagecoach”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “The Searchers” (one of my all-time favorites), there would be no Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, or Clint Eastwood. John Ford is pretty important. And one of the films that won him an Academy Award for Best Director was 1952’s “The Quiet Man”, a love story set in Ireland starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Ford was an Irish immigrant, so this was a very personal film for him. And to someone like me whose ancestors come from Ireland—and who also happens to share the same first name and height as Wayne’s character—this is a film that means a lot to my family as well.

     Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a man born and raised in Ireland who then immigrated to America and became a boxer. But the story starts out with Thornton returning to his homeland, to buy back the house he and his ancestors were born in. Once he returns, he meets up with an old friend (Barry Fitzgerald), meets and immediately falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara), and buys his house. However, Thornton runs into trouble with Will Danaher, Mary Kate’s brother. Danaher wanted the land that Thornton’s house was on, and once Thornton bought it, Danaher felt robbed. So when Sean and Mary Kate get married, Danaher refuses to pay Mary Kate’s dowry. To Sean, this isn’t a big deal—Mary Kate matters more to him than the money. But in Ireland, without her brother’s consent to pay the dowry, custom is that the two of them cannot be officially married. When the two of them get into an argument—on their wedding night—Mary Kate tells him:

MARY KATE: I’ll wear your ring. I’ll cook. And I’ll wash, and I’ll keep the land. But that is all! Until I’ve got my dowry safe about me, I’m no married woman. I’m the servant I’ve always been—without anything of my own!

     Maybe Sean doesn’t understand this Irish custom, but perhaps even if he did, he wouldn’t care about Mary Kate’s dowry. And after the two of them get into another argument about her fortune, Sean goes to see the local reverend Cyril Playfair (Arthur Shields) to tell him about his troubles. It turns out that during his boxing career, Thornton beat his opponent so badly that he killed him. Filled with guilt about it, Thornton has come back to Ireland to forget it and try to put it behind him. He tells Playfair:

THORNTON: [My opponent] was a good egg. Nice little wife and home, a couple of kids. Clean fighter. But I didn’t go in there to fight him. I went in there to beat his brains out. To drive him into the canvas—to murder him! And that’s what I did. For what? A purse? A piece of the gate? Lousy money.

PLAYFAIR: And now money’s behind your trouble with Danaher.

THORNTON: They think I’m afraid to fight him. All the friends I’ve made here, even my wife!

PLAYFAIR: But aren’t you, in a way?

THORNTON: Did you ever kill a man? Well, I have, and… all this talk about her big fortune, it’s not that important.

     Here, it’s subtly hinted at that Thornton was paid to kill his opponent, but when he did, the money became nothing to him. The Bible has a lot of passages that oppose the love of money. 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” This verse, for Catholic Sean Thornton, probably hits home hard. And once his opponent had been killed, Thornton was struck with that grief. Now he has no love of money, but this belief has been consequential for him: Mary Kate refuses to be his wife unless he is willing to get the dowry, even though it’s a matter of indifference to him.

     But near the end of the film, Sean and Mary Kate are sitting in front of their fireplace in their cottage. Mary Kate, implying in her conversation that Sean must have been out drinking, gets Sean to tell her that he was out talking with Reverend Playfair. Then Mary Kate confesses to him that she was out that afternoon talking to her priest. She shows as much concern for this issue as he does—and both of them sought out their pastors for advice. Perhaps John Ford (a Catholic director) is showing here the importance of faith and going to God (or, in this case, a pastor) for guidance. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you won’t let material things like money control your decisions, but that instead you would go to God for guidance, because only He can show you the right Way.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gladiator (2000)

     Not long ago, I saw the movie “Gladiator” for the very first time… even though it was released more than ten years ago. I’m not even sure why it took so long for me to see this. All the guys on my hall in my dorm that saw it thought it was excellent, and I can see why. I started watching this thinking it was going to be constant action sequences and limited story. But nope: this story is actually really good. And so is Russell Crowe. And best of all, “Gladiator” contains several profound themes that I, as a Christian, can relate to.

     Crowe, in what many consider his breakthrough role, plays Maximus, a Roman general who, because of his victories in… battle (sorry, I’m not a huge history buff, and I only saw the movie once, so I can’t tell you WHAT battle), is picked by emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to be his heir, instead of Aurelius’ son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). In anger, Commodus murders his father and sends soldiers out to kill Maximus’ wife and son. Maximus escapes execution and finds his way home, but when he finds his family brutally murdered, he decides to avenge their deaths by going back to find Commodus. In the process, however, he becomes a slave, and is forced to fight in deathly combat in an arena—and of course, being a victorious Roman general, Maximus not only survives and wins, but he manages to keep his fellow slaves united. Pretty soon, Maximus’ victories in battle lead him to a meeting with Commodus, who eventually duels with him to the death. Guess who wins? Maximus. Guess who dies? Both of them. They’re both hurt pretty bad, and not only is Commodus killed in the duel, but Maximus dies from his wounds. However, as he dies, he sees in his mind his wife and son, who draw him into a beautiful land that represents the afterlife.

     So that’s the first theme I want to address about this movie: the afterlife. The first shot in the film, after some credits describing the time period, is a close-up of a hand moving slowly through a meadow. When I first saw this, I thought: what? What does this mean? And then in the end of the movie, when Maximus dies and goes to see his family, we see that it’s his hand moving through the meadow and he walks to see his son again. To me, this is so significant. It’s as if from the very beginning, Maximus is thinking of the life to come after this one. The New Testament is filled with hopeful description of Heaven, from Jesus’ Gospels to the Apostle John’s book of Revelation. The Bible tells us not to focus so much on this life, but on the life to come. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Jesus, when he talks even about the end of the world, tells us in Matthew that only He and the Word of God remain at the end of the age: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (24:35) And Maximus—even though he isn’t a Christian—is certain that he will experience an afterlife. He tells Commodus when he finally meets him after his family’s execution: “I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” And wouldn’t you know it, right when he gets his revenge in this life, he finds himself in the next.

     The second main theme that stuck out to me is the idea of mercy. There’s a scene where Maximus is in the arena, having fought another man but not yet killed him. Commodus, on-looking, makes the thumbs-down gesture, signifying the command to have this man killed. But Maximus doesn’t do it: instead of using his ax to execute his opponent, he throws the ax down beside him, much to the confusion of Commodus and the audience. Someone even jokingly cries out to him, “Maximus the Merciful!” But Commodus doesn’t see this as a joke. He laments to one of his servants:

COMMODUS: And now they love Maximus for his mercy! So I can’t just kill him, or it makes me more unmerciful! The whole thing’s like some crazy… nightmare! …I will not make a martyr of him.

     Jesus destroyed the old idea of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” when he preached his Word. He even tackles that idea head-on in Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Earlier in that chapter, in his Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, he says in verse 7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Jesus even showed us mercy by dying on a cross for our sins. Mercy is a very interesting concept: when we show something mercy, it makes us lower than the other person, and yet that is where we need to be. And our enemies, such as Commodus was to Maximus, will notice us if we are merciful, and may even (like Commodus) fear us.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will invest less in this temporary life and more in the eternal life waiting for you in Heaven—and yet while you’re still in this temporary one, you will respond to your struggles, trials, and enemies with mercy that can only come from Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

127 Hours (2010)

     This past Sunday was the night of the 2010 Academy Awards, and one of the films nominated was “127 Hours”, made by the same people that made “Slumdog Millionaire” two years before. In “127 Hours”, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, the real-life mountain climber who is trapped between rocks and is stuck there for several days. Franco’s performance basically carries the entire film, and it is fantastic. But there’s an element of hope to this movie that, even though it may not have been intentional by the filmmakers, reflects the hope of the Christian faith.

     Ralston is climbing mountains in Utah when all of a sudden he slips, falls, and is trapped in-between two enormous rocks, with another boulder crushing his arm. In the 127 hours that he is trapped there, he experiences flashbacks to his past life. He remembers his childhood, his brother, and his parents. He remembers the parties and the fun times he had with his girlfriend—and then when she dumps him. And he remembers the two women he met hours before he was trapped, who were also hiking through the mountains. Ralston’s experienced so much, and now it looks like he’s destined to die with his bloodied arm crushed under a rock. He uses his video camera to leave messages for whoever finds his corpse there, telling his family goodbye and how he wishes he could have loved them more. It seems hopeless for him.

     But after several days of standing in-between the rocks, trying to find a way out, and even being forced to drink his own urine to survive, he sees something in the distance. Someone. A little boy on a couch, smiling at him. In his mind, Aron is seeing his future son. This image is telling him that this isn’t the end for him. And as he makes his last video messages, he reflects on how he ended up where he is:

RALSTON: I’ve been thinking. Everything... just comes together. It's me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock... this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. Its entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. …I've been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I've taken, every action has been leading me to this…

     Screenwriter/director Danny Boyle puts a lot of foreshadowing elements into the film to emphasize this idea that the boulder was “destined” for Ralston. For example, when he meets the two women, he is wearing a bandana over his face. When he reveals his face to them and they don’t look too impressed, he says jokingly, “Can’t take that off. That’s my face.” That’s true, Aron, you can’t take off your face—but you’re going to have to take off your arm, which is what he eventually does. In an uncomfortable and pretty graphic sequence, Ralston breaks and cuts off his arm and frees himself from the boulder. Even though the boulder may have been part of his “destiny”, he wasn’t going to let it kill him.

     One of the biggest issues that I’ve seen Christians debate is the idea of predestination versus free will. I won’t get into it right now, but I will say I believe that in a way, God allows both in our lives. Romans 8:29-30 says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” God has a plan for his followers that he has planned in advance, even though we don’t know what that plan is. But the choices we make will eventually lead us towards or away from God’s will.

     And when Ralston is stuck in the mountain, he is faced with a choice. He wonders early on about cutting off his arm, but he doesn’t want to come to that place. At first, he would rather die. He imagines a flash flood coming into the rocks (an image that reminds me of Jesus calling himself Living Water in the Gospel of John) and lifting the boulder off his arm, allowing him to climb out with two arms. But this is also just in his mind: he is left stuck in the rocks, crying out, “Please!” seemingly to God. Then, when he cuts off his arm and is freed, he looks up and whispers, “Thank You.” I don’t know Aron Ralston’s beliefs, but in the film, this character seems to believe that God has brought him here, and has given him the strength to make it out alive.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will ask God to bring you into His will, no matter how much it may hurt, so that you will be able to serve Him in ways you can’t even imagine.