Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Thin Red Line (1998)

     I apologize, but in the latter part of this month on “Reel Christianity”, I seem to be repeating myself. Back in July, I reviewed a superhero movie, “Batman Begins”, and followed it with a Terrence Malick film, “The Tree of Life”. This month, I’m following another superhero movie, “Iron Man”, with Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”. Oops. I didn’t really plan to, I just wanted to talk about this movie today. Hope you don’t mind. Anyway, “The Thin Red Line” is a 1998 World War Two movie that was nominated for that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. And that must have been a WWII remembrance year or something, because “Saving Private Ryan” and “Life is Beautiful”, two other WWII movies, were also nominated for the same award. That’s probably why the award went to a non-WWII film, “Shakespeare in Love”. Anyway, like “The Tree of Life”, “The Thin Red Line” focuses more on the image, particularly on nature itself, and it goes into the thoughts of the characters and what they’re going through. And since this is war, it’s very compelling.

     There isn’t really a main character in this film, but to me, it’s Witt (Jim Caviziel), a soldier who has gone AWOL with another soldier and gone to an island in the South Pacific to live with the natives. He is eventually confronted by his sergeant, Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), who assigns him to go to Guadalcanal, another South-Pacific island close to Australia, where the Americans are going to fight the Japanese. Witt joins the other soldiers, and we see the many other characters we’ll be seeing a lot of in the film. Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte) will be commanding the battle, and a victory would mean a promotion—and his status in the army, we find out, means more to him than risking the lives of soldiers. James Staros (Elias Koteas) is a captain working under him, and it seems like he has a little more humanity than Tall does, not wanting to risk his soldiers’ lives. Doll (Dash Mihok) is one of the more lighthearted soldiers, which later serves as a weakness when he’s not able to handle a fellow man dying in front of him. That man is Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson), who looks out for his men but at one point doesn’t look at what he’s doing himself and sets a grenade off, killing him. But Bell (Ben Chaplin) feels like he has it worst of all. He left behind a lover, and he can’t stop thinking about her… even after she eventually leaves him for someone who’s actually at home.

     So yeah, this movie isn’t so much a war movie as much as a character study… of a lot of characters. And just like “The Tree of Life”, nature also plays an important role in the film. At the beginning of the film, Witt looks at the island and its people and contemplates about Heaven. Recently, his mother had passed away, which got him thinking about a life outside of this one:

WITT: I remember my mother when she was dying, looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find nothing beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard of people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it. …I wondered how it'd be like when I died, what it'd be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same... calm.

     And after seeing the beauty around him, he starts finding God in the nature he sees. When Welsh finds him, he confronts him about his almost treasonous attitude:

WELSH: In this world, a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.

WITT: You’re wrong there, sir. I’ve seen another world. Sometimes, I think it was just my imagination.

WELSH: Well, you’ve seen things I never will. …We’re living in a world that’s blown itself to hell as fast as anybody can arrange it. In a situation like that, all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him. Look out for himself.

     Well, what do you know. It’s like the duality of nature and grace like in “The Tree of Life”! Or, in other words, the idea of “might makes right” like Welsh is saying and the idea of Heaven and love like Witt believes. I guess this is something that Malick feels strongly about. Anyway, what I want to talk about a little is that idea of Heaven, of a world beyond this one. It’s funny how Malick portrays nature in his films as such a beautiful thing, but in “The Thin Red Line”, his main character (well, to me, he’s the main character) is wondering about another world.

     And once again, this leads me to show you once again the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks about judging others, not worrying, praying, and fasting, but he also tells the crowds that this world is not permanent; therefore, store up treasures in heaven. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) But this is hard for many of us to do, especially people like me who have lived all their life in the United States. We’re fat and greedy, but we don’t realize it. And it’s hard for us to let go of earthly things and look to our future in heaven.

     Another story that shows this is when a rich young ruler goes to Jesus, telling him that he has kept all the commandments and he wants to know what else he has to do to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Matthew 19:21) And the ruler, unwilling to give up his things, walks away sad. Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, who have pretty much left everything they know to follow Jesus, that “‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.’” (19:29)

     As a Christian, I need to remember always that this life is not all there is. I have a home in Heaven, and I need to prepare myself to get there by telling people about Jesus in this life. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that you will store up treasures in Heaven by serving humbly on Earth.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Iron Man (2008)

     This past summer, all I heard about were superheroes. Look at all the movies that came out this summer: “Thor”, “X-Men: First Class”, “Green Lantern”, “Captain America”—I think we have an obsession with superheroes. Either that or the movie studios just have money to burn. And not only that, but “The Avengers” started shooting in my hometown last month, and “The Dark Knight Rises” started shooting in my parents’ hometown the month before that! Superhero movies are everywhere. But to me, there are only a couple that I really like. Why? Because they represent people that I know from the Bible. As I wrote a couple months ago, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman seem like an allegory to the Christian believer dying to self and becoming more like Christ, even if he is hated by the world. But there’s another superhero movie that reminds me of another Bible character. Here’s “Iron Man”.

     I remember when “Iron Man” was released hearing that this movie helped revive Robert Downey, Jr.’s career. That was irrelevant to me—I knew him only as Joe Wershba from “Good Night, and Good Luck.” But anyway, in this film, Downey, Jr., plays the title character, otherwise known as Tony Stark. Tony is the son of engineering giant Howard Stark, who developed manufacturing company Stark Industries. (I think. Yeah, the comic book fans probably know more about this than I do.) Anyway, when Howard and his wife died in a car crash, Tony became the head of Stark Industries, making it the biggest manufacturing company in the world. Or something. However, Tony himself, though he is a rich genius, he is also a wealthy playboy (not much different than Bruce Wayne, now that I think of it) who gambles, drinks, and hangs out with women. (To put it lightly.)

     Then one day, as Tony is demonstrating a new weapon for the Americans to use in Afghanistan, his vehicle is attacked (by weapons stolen from Stark Industries), the soldiers around him are killed, and he is captured by terrorists. But he’s not alone—he joins Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a native captive who is also a scientist. He was able to develop a kind of mechanical heart for Tony to prevent the shrapnel in his chest from killing him. They are assigned to make the terrorists a missile as good as that of Stark Industries. But Tony and Yinsen have another plan: basically, make a robot and use it to escape. Eventually, they finish and Tony is able to attack some of the terrorists and escape. But Yinsen is shot down, and as he dies, he tells Tony something short but powerful: “Don’t waste your life.”

     And Tony takes this to heart when he leaves the terrorists’ camp and his colonel friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard) brings him back home. At a press conference, Tony shocks everyone with what he has to say:

TONY: I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.

REPORTER: Mr. Stark… what happened over there?

TONY: I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries.

     And everyone, including Rhodey, Tony’s assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and family “friend” Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), is shocked at what’s happened to Tony Stark. So now, to make a long story short, Tony rebuilds his robot and turns it into the robot superhero Iron Man, he stops chasing women and starts building a better relationship with Pepper, he finds out that Obadiah wants control of Stark Industries and made a deal with the terrorists to get rid of Tony, Obadiah makes a robot suit of his own and fights Iron Man with it, Tony is victorious, and he admits being Iron Man to the rest of the world. I just summarized about an hour of film in one run-on sentence. You’re welcome. “The Avengers” comes out May 4, 2012.

     But anyway, if Tony Stark is supposed to resemble a Bible character, who could it be? Maybe you’ve figured it out already: the Apostle Paul. I never really realized it myself until reading an article on, which I encourage you all to check out, which talked about superhero movies and referenced how Tony Stark has a “Damascus road experience” and changes his ways. So what I’d like to do is share with the story of the Apostle Paul, formerly known as the Pharisee Saul.

     Saul was a zealous Jew who grew up studying the Bible and was passionate about his faith. And when Jesus started teaching, more and more people became Christians, and to Saul, it was a blasphemous threat. So Saul went to great lengths to stop the spread of Christianity, even if it meant putting families in prison for it. But one day, as he was on the road to Damascus persecuting Christians, a light shone out of nowhere and stopped Saul and his companions.

     “He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

     “‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.

     “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ He replied. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’

     “The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.” (Acts 9:4-9)

     Soon, God sends Ananias, a Christian in Damascus, to heal Saul’s blindness and baptize him. And pretty soon, Saul, the zealous Pharisee, becomes Paul, the zealous Christian disciple, who is responsible for writing most of the New Testament and starting what we now know as the Christian church. (No, I don’t mean church as in the building; I mean it as the idea of fellowship between Christians. In those times, Christianity was persecuted so much that believers had to meet in secret.) And this is the kind of transformation that Tony Stark exhibits in “Iron Man”: what he created to use for destruction, he now uses to fight off enemies, very similar to how Paul now preaches the way of life he used to persecute!

     The story of the Apostle Paul is very powerful, and it shows how God can transform anyone, even those who have persecuted his name. My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will have the zeal and passion to follow Christ as Paul had, even when it shocks the people around you.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

(Just a little warning: if you’re a kid and you’ve stumbled across this article, you might not want to read this. There are actually a couple adult issues in this one.)

     Recently, Sidney Lumet passed away, the great filmmaker who directed two movies that I’ve already talked about on this site: “Network” and “12 Angry Men”. But last month, I got to see one of his other well-known films for the first time, “Dog Day Afternoon”. Now, as far as I know, Lumet was not a Christian, but it’s funny how in his three greatest films (well, at least the ones that I’ve seen), there have been themes that I’ve taken from them that relate to my faith. And “Dog Day Afternoon”, even though it’s a very dark film, is no exception.

     The film is based on the true story of a bank robbery in Brooklyn in 1972 that pretty much went haywire. The robbers are Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his friend Sal (John Cazale), Vietnam veterans who have apparently already spent time in jail. Sal walks into the bank and quietly points a gun at the manager, while Sonny brings in a long white box containing another gun. Suddenly, Sonny shouts, and everyone working at the bank, all women except for a male guard and the male manager, are forced against the wall. But immediately, things start going wrong. The bank vault only contains $1100, because most of the money inside was recently picked up. One of the bank tellers has to go to the bathroom, and so Sonny is forced to calmly let all the tellers into the bathroom. The guard has an asthma attack, so other tellers have to attend to him. And then eventually, a police officer across the street spots Sonny, and the cops surround the bank.

     And it’s not only the cops that surround the bank, but eventually a crowd gathers around as well. Sonny and Sal now have a hostage situation on their hands. Sonny tells the cops that he is holding the employees hostage, and the lead detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) now has to act as a negotiator. And the whole thing turns into a media frenzy. Sonny gets the crowd hyped up by yelling at the cops about police brutality, referencing their excessive force in the 1971 Attica prison riot, and he starts chanting “Attica!”, a now famous line. Eventually, Sonny makes his demands. He asks for a helicopter and a jet to take him and Sal out of the country to wherever they want to go. If Moretti gets those things for him, the hostages will be set free.

     Eventually, the police are sent out to get Sonny’s family. Well, it appears that Sonny has two wives. One of them, his first wife, is Angie (Susan Peretz), who knew that Sonny had been acting very strange and vulgar but was not sure why, especially not why he would go and rob a bank. But his second wife answers that question: a guy, Leon (Chris Sarandon), who reveals that he and Sonny were lovers and Sonny wanted to get Leon money for… an operation. Let’s just put it that way. So once Sonny is revealed as a bisexual, the media frenzy gets even crazier. Sonny is able to contact each of his wives, say last goodbyes (sort of… he yells a lot), and soon he, Sal, and the hostages have what they need to leave the bank. A limousine takes them to the airport, and very suddenly, Sonny is arrested and Sal is shot. And the movie ends, just like that. Oh well.

     What I really noticed about this film is that Sonny Wortzik, and Sal, for that matter, are living lives filled with contradictions. They are both Catholic, and Sonny tells the bank employees that from the start: “I’m a Catholic, and I don’t want to hurt anybody.” Yet Sonny leads a bank robbery, curses at pretty much everybody, and leads a homosexual lifestyle. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Catholics should do. And I don’t mean that to be funny, I really mean it: if you’re not afraid to talk about your religion, why are you doing things that go against it? There’s even a scene where Sal is sitting in a room where some of the bank tellers are smoking, and he tells them they shouldn’t be doing that. “Your body is the temple of the Lord”, he tells them. And one of them, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), sees the contradiction: “You rob a bank, but you keep your body pure. Is that it?”

     And one of the biggest challenges for a Christian is living a life of contradictions. Usually, that means saying you’re a Christian but not living like you are one. If I was to go around saying that I believed in Jesus, but I also went out and smoke, drank, and slept around, I would be living a life of contradictions. And Jesus rebuked this kind of lifestyle. Many times in the Gospels, He can be found rebuking the Pharisees, the hypocritical religious leaders of that time, for living a life of religion on the outside but not believing it in their hearts. In a long passage in Matthew 23, Jesus shouts at the Pharisees for their hypocrisy: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (23:27-28)

     And by living a contradictory life, Sonny Wortzik eventually gets himself arrested and his accomplice shot in the head. The movie tells us that he was sentenced to 20 years in jail, and Leon did end up getting his operation. I wonder if they ever made amends. But my prayer for you, the reader (and definitely for myself), is that you will be strong in your walk with Jesus that you will not live a double life, but a life that shouts the name of Jesus in everything you do.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

     Ah, Steven Spielberg. I knew I’d get to him sooner or later. Yes, Spielberg is the director behind such classic blockbusters as “Jaws”, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and behind epic masterpieces like “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”. So even though his directing style isn’t entirely original (he’s borrowed a lot of techniques from John Ford—and Spielberg would be the first to admit it), he’s a great storyteller and can appeal to all kinds of audiences. But my favorite Spielberg film is what I’ll be sharing with you today, his UFO film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, which incorporates science fiction, music, and even faith into a movie that amazes me every time I watch it.

     The movie begins by placing us in the middle of Mexico in an investigation that’s a total mystery to us, and to the people exploring there. Scientists have found World War Two planes that had been declared missing in 1945, but somehow they look brand-new. Where did they come from? Well, remember those planes. Then we move to Indiana where we’re introduced to Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), son of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), who wakes up to find something—or someone—in his kitchen that eventually leads him outside. Jillian chases after him. Remember that. THEN we’re finally introduced to the lead character, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), and his family. Roy works for the local power company who calls him and tells him that lines are going down all over the city, right before their own line goes down. Roy drives out to investigate, but soon he has to pull over next to a railroad crossing because he’s lost. But at the crossing, something strange happens. Lights start flashing around him. Nearby mailboxes start shaking. The power in his car goes on and off without Roy even turning the key. Eventually, it all stops, and Roy is able to go on driving, though completely confused.

     Suddenly, Roy sees up ahead on the road a little boy. He swerves just in time. He gets out to make sure the child and his mother are okay. It’s Barry and Jillian: she’s chased him all the way out to the road because he’s chasing something else. And the three of them, along with a few others, witness something spectacular: an unidentified flying object, all lit up and booming loud. It’s so bright that they’re all sunburned! And from that point on, Roy is obsessed with finding out more about the UFO. He gets an image in his mind of some kind of mountain, the shape of which he sees constantly in household objects. He knows that there is a real mountain like it, but he doesn’t know what it is. Jillian is the same way—she has the same vision of the same mountain.

     And then things start taking a turn for the worst. Barry is captured by a UFO, leaving Jillian distraught. Roy’s obsession with the ship and the mountain start distracting him from his family life, and it eventually drives him crazy—in a way. He starts to yield and takes down the drawings and sculptures he’s made of that mountain in his study, until suddenly, he accidentally rips the top off of one and recognizes it: he’s been seeing Devil’s Tower, a mountain in Wyoming with a flat top. And he starts getting even more obsessed—so much so that his wife takes their three kids and leaves him. He decides to go to Wyoming to see what’s going on Devil’s Tower, where he finds Jillian but also finds the military trying to drive people out of the area, trying to keep the UFO issue a secret. But that doesn’t stop Roy and Jillian, who climb up Devil’s Tower and find the site where scientists are preparing to communicate with the UFO.

     And the sequence that follows is breathtaking. See, earlier on in the film, scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and others figured out that the UFO made five musical notes that they were able to duplicate. And now, the scientists play those five notes, luring in the UFO, and eventually communicating with it through complicated music. It’s awesome. Soon, the UFO lands, and people come out: among them, the pilots of those “missing” WWII planes, who haven’t aged a day, and Barry, excited as ever.

     I say this is a movie about faith because Roy and Jillian’s characters have a vision and are willing to sacrifice their safety to find out what it is. And that’s the kind of faith that I should have as a Christian, trying to find out more and more about how I should follow Jesus. And it’s really simple: just have faith. Just believe. Jesus even says to have the faith of a child, just simply believing. In Mark 10, when Jesus’ disciples are driving children away from seeing Jesus, He welcomes the children to Him: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (10:14-15)

     In “Close Encounters”, Roy has to find the faith and the courage to just trust his gut and figure out what’s going on. In a sense, he needs the faith of a child—like Barry, who finds the aliens before anyone else and even befriends them before anyone else. And when Roy has that kind of faith, the faith that takes him from Indiana to Wyoming, through closed roads and military confrontations, even when he has no idea what he’s looking for, people see that in him. One of the film’s last lines is when Lacombe, who has met Roy and knows where he’s been, tells him: “Mr. Neary, I envy you.”

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will find the childlike faith to follow Jesus today, even when you have no idea where He’s going to take you.